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Column 610offer a reasonable and quick remedy, we have had much experience in the establishment of a variety of tribunals and appointments to them. I have experience of industrial relations, and much of the transformation in industrial relations over the past decade occurred as a result of industrial tribunals and the confidence that they have engendered in both sides of industry. A clear and sensible appeal procedure is available, and I should like us to take that direction. I should like the promoter to accept that the implementation of this Bill and appointments made under it should be left with the most senior member of the judiciary. It is difficult not to feel strongly about the experiences of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), but moving to a system under the Lord Chancellor would not stifle the development of the Bill. Rather it would put it on a path for which there would be wider acceptability.
The role of such a body would be not only to hear complaints but to issue guidelines. I have difficulty understanding what this largely ill-defined body will do to establish guidelines without a clear indication of the methods that it must consider and what penalties will be available.
Bodies such as the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service have been charged with the duty of establishing guidelines to improve industrial relations. A solution to establishing a code of behaviour is not an insuperable problem, but the key to much of ACAS's success is that to a large degree it is voluntary and because of the treatment of its codes as evidence in hearings in industrial tribunals it carries much weight. The amendments that shift the balance from the Home Office to the Lord Chancellor and the judicial system must be an important step in the right direction for future Bills.
Under the proposed amendments the new body would be established by a statutory instrument. The House should have another opportunity to express its will before a Bill is passed because there are bound to be developments between now and then that hon. Members should take into account. I should be willing to support an amendment to that effect, but I am less enthusiastic about the other amendments that have been tabled, especially amendment No. 77, which proposes that initially the commission should comprise 21 members. I think that 21 members is far too many and should not like an amendment to expand that number because it could grow uncontrollably if there were no limits.
Although I share the disappointment of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie that his Bill will not get on the statute book, I hope that he will accept that there is a great deal of good will for his aims, even among hon. Members who have spoken against aspects of the Bill. We are looking forward to seeing legislation that will redress the considerable wrongs that undoubtedly exist in a way that we can accept.
Mr. Grocott : I should, perhaps, declare an interest as a member of the National Union of Journalists, although I do not agree with the approach of my union to the Bill. I also could not disagree more strongly with the views of the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste), who said that he did not consider the Home Secretary to be the right person to deal with appointments to the press commission. The Home Secretary is precisely the right person for an extremely important reason. He already has the statutory
Column 611responsibility across broadcasting for ensuring that a range of objectives, similar to those we are trying to obtain in the Bill, are secured.
The Minister of State gave a wholly unacceptable reply to my earlier intervention. Home Office Ministers are responsible under the Broadcasting Act 1981 for the Independent Broadcasting Authority to satisfy itself that :
"all news in the programmes (in whatever form) is presented with due accuracy."
That is the responsibility throughout independent television. It is astonishing that the Home Office should take the view that it is important to ensure fairness, impartiality and accuracy in broadcasting, yet should not seem to be concerned to ensure those objectives for the press.
It is odd that Home Office Ministers should keep saying that the whole matter is unworkable. That was also the gist of the comments of the hon. Member for Elmet. Of course, concepts such as fairness, impartiality and accuracy are difficult and we could all debate them for hours, but it seems that we keep trying to rediscover the wheel. Such questions are asked and dealt with day in and day out by the people whose business is to be involved in broadcasting journalism, and such questions are dealt with by means of documents such as the television programme guidelines, which lay down sensible requirements about accuracy and the necessity to correct inaccuracies when they occur and, on live broadcasts, to ensure that the error is admitted as quickly as possible after the inaccuracy has occurred. There are difficulties in implementing the guidelines, but no one believes that the regulations are a serious intrusion into the freedom of journalists and broadcasters. On the contrary, they enhance the quality of journalism. Journalists working in broadcasting do not feel inhibited by having to work under such guidelines. I have not yet met one journalist who has said that he will not leave printed journalism to join the broadcasting section because he would be hopelessly inhibited in what he could say. There is no shortage of people wanting to leave printed journalism to go into broadcasting.
These are commonsense rules and regulations. They are spelt out and are open for anyone to see. People can see copies of the television guidelines in the Library. One can complain if one feels that one has been treated unjustly and, ultimately, the Home Secretary has the statutory power to see, through the Independent Broadcasting Authority, that frequently offending companies are no longer able to broadcast when the franchises come up for review. No one sees such a regulatory framework as unfair or restrictive--the spectres raised by Conservative Members who suggested that we are trying to create a monster through this innocuous and gentle little Bill.
It is surely far better that the pressures and controls are made open. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) has left us. He sat through the earlier part of the debate and had I known that he would not be here when I spoke, I would have informed him accordingly. I thought that he might want to listen to the whole debate, rather than to rely on what the press has to say on the matter. It is astonishing for him to talk about restricting the freedom of the press when, as a senior Minister, he did his utmost to intimidate the BBC. I infinitely prefer regulations that are clearly spelt out and understood, and to which everyone can refer when the
Column 612need arises, to the nasty little phone call and to the nod and the wink, more in keeping with the style of the right hon. Member for Chingford.
What do we need to fear, and why is not the Home Office being consistent? I think that the Home Secretary should make the appointments and I await in vain a proper explanation of why the Government want to regulate broadcasting but not the press. I fear that the answer is the answer given by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) : they want broadcasting to follow the example of The Sun. Their approach will then have the merit of consistency, although it will be a deeply depressing day for freedom and for the accuracy, objectivity and quality of journalism.
vernment tell us that the proposed Broadcasting Bill takes the press as its model. The Home Secretary himself has said that it willgive people the choice that they have when they thumb through newspapers in a newsagent's shop. There are two models for accurate news and current affairs reporting in this country. One is the press--in particular the tabloid press--and the other is public sectorbroadcasting. I know which model I prefer. It is absolutely essentiathat we are consistent in our approach to these matters, and to lookto the example of the broadcast media is infinitely preferable to thalternative. Madam Deputy Speaker : Mr. Ian Aitken--[ Hon. Members :"Who?"]--I am sorry, Mr. Jonathan Aitken.
Mr. Aitken : I have not changed sides yet, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) had a point when he complained about the possible lack of consistency in our approach towards broadcasting standards and standards in the press. Only last week, I was able to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in a question to the fact that the Government and the Home Office had endorsed the latest EEC directive on broadcasting and television which enshrines in EEC legislation the principle of a right of reply. It is somewhat bizarre to find the Government apparently endorsing the right to reply by stealth in Brussels while being so oddly equivocal about it--to put it politely--in this place.
Mr. Renton : My hon. Friend's words "by stealth" have stung me into action. My hon. Friend should know that the original draft of the EC directive contained the words "right of reply". We specifically arranged for that article to be changed to ensure that all that Britain had to do to comply with the directive was to continue with our Broadcasting Complaints Commission, which has existed for a long time and whose remit specifically and only covers
"unjust or unfair treatment or unwarranted infringement of privacy in, or in connection with the obtaining of material included in, sound and television programmes."
Those are the limited objectives of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. The EC directive deals only with broadcasting, in any case, and we ensured that the relevant article was amended to make it clear that we should merely have to continue with our present Broadcasting Complaints Commission.
Mr. Aitken : Even that limited achievement would be welcome in legislation on the press. By the words "by stealth" I meant "by parliamentary stealth". The fact remains that the House has been given no opportunity whatever to debate the directive, which is a matter of some shame in the way in which we deal with European legislation.
Mr. Aitken : We are getting away from the Bill. That was an extremely bad point. The directive, which has been massively redrafted, is heading for ratification by the Commission. As the Select Committee on European Legislation discovered the other day, it has not been properly debated. There has been quite a row on the matter. My hon. Friend the Minister may be more astray with his facts than I am. I want to get back to the new clause.
Mr. Gow : Is my hon. Friend aware that every one of his hon. Friends, with the sole exception--I am sorry to have to say this--of my hon. Friends the Minister and the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household agrees with him about that EEC directive? I want him to know that he has unanimous support, apart from the two present occupants of the Treasury Bench.
Mr. Aitken : I am heartened by the unanimity of support for what I have said so far. I suspect that mine will be the only Conservative voice in favour of the much-maligned Bill. I am glad to support the new clause which was ably and amusingly moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow).
The new clause raises the issues whether the Bill should be handled by the Lord Chancellor and whether it should be delayed at the Lord Chancellor's discretion. I suspect that that was the prime purpose of my hon. Friend's thinking. Many experts on delaying tactics are present. I hardly think that it is necessary to drag in the poor old Lord Chancellor as a delaying long- stop. Nevertheless, although I support the Bill, I am not unduly critical of the delaying tactics which have been used by some of my hon. Friends. All is fair in love, war and parliamentary procedure, as the saying goes.
There is some merit in pausing and thinking about the Bill. Neither my hon. Friends nor the editors who have addressed us through a microphone over the past few days needed to have got quite so hot under the collar about the Bill. It is flawed to some extent, and the flaws were visible from the start. Three months ago, I wrote to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) to say that I would start with him on the Bill but that I had some doubts about whether I would finish with him. There are some genuine doubts, some of which may be resolved by the introduction of the delaying mechanism of the Lord Chancellor.
I pay a genuine tribute to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie. He has done more than any other individual in recent memory to start the important process of cleaning up the Augean stables of the British tabloid press. There is wide agreement that the clean-up should take place. We seem to disagree on the methods by
Column 614which it should take place. Should it involve statutory legislation? Should it involve the Home Secretary? Should it involve the Lord Chancellor?
I am attracted to the new clause, not least because of the persuasive arguments which were put forward on legal or quasi-legal grounds by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste). The new clause envisages the Bill being passed and then being suspended like some legal sword of Damocles over the head of the British press until it can be dropped on it-- presumably after acts of further misbehaviour--at the discretion of the Lord Chancellor. If we accept the new clause and pass the Bill, we will give the British press one last chance to put its own house in order. If it does not do so, the Bill--warts and all, flaws and all--will crash down on the head of what used to be called Fleet street.
The cry "Let's give the press one last chance" has been heard with great frequency and intensity in the past few days. There has been an almost hysterical reaction to the Bill from editorial writers, proprietors, editors and journalists. I have been much amused by all the comment. I was riveted to receive an expensive glossy brochure from Mr. Max Hasting, the editor of The Daily Telegraph. I was even more amused when the editor of the "Sunday Lonhro" addressed us all last Sunday in an editorial of Guardian -like length about the need to kill off the Bill. If there is one newspaper at what used to be called the quality end of the market that has sacrificed all pretence to integrity and impartiality, it is the "Sunday Lonhro" and its journalists--or, as they should now be called, Rowlandists'. The serious aspect of press over-reaction to the Bill is that if only one tenth of the energy, dedication, crusading zeal and expense that the press put into opposing the Bill was devoted to putting its own house in order, there would be no need for the Bill and for Parliament to spend time on the matter. If the press does want to put its house in order, I see precious little sign of any serious intention to do so.
One of the ways in which the press could put its own house in order is to spend much more of its own money on the Press Council, giving that enfeebled but well-intentioned organisation better-paid staff, more professionals, and its own investigators, lawyers and publicity budget. The national press could well afford to do that. The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph make profits of more than £30 million a year. The Sunday Times, whose editor has been just as pompous as other editors in his comments on the Bill's weaknesses, makes more than £70 million per year. Its stablemate The Sun, makes more than £60 million per year. The national press as a whole is making unprecedented profits of about £250 million a year. What proportion of those enormous profits goes to the Press Council--the only alternative regulating body to that proposed in the Bill? It is revealed on page 213 of the Press Council's 1988 annual report that the Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents the entire resources of all national newspapers, contributed £276, 000-- about 0.1 per cent., or one tenth of one per cent. of the profits of the national press--to the goal of self-regulation. I say to the press that it should put its money where its big mouth is. Instead of the Press Council having a £500,000 budget, it should have a budget of about £5 million to do the job that the Minister and the amendment want it to do.
In the absence of serious press money or intentions, new clause 5 returns to the whole question of statutory
Column 615regulation and who should enforce it--the Lord Chancellor or the Home Secretary. I am a late convert to the right of reply cause. For most of my own journalistic and political life I have held aloft the rather tattered banner of press freedom. I opposed the first right of reply Bill introduced by Mr. Frank Allaun. I am still nervous about supporting a measure that will undoubtedly impose restrictions on the press. One of the strong reasons for my nervousness is that most of the British press does not need or deserve right of reply legislation. We should all feel a certain sadness that so many decent national and regional newspapers that report the news fairly and honourably correct their own mistakes are confronted with a Bill of this kind because they are tarred with the brush of the lower tabloids. What a mean and dirty brush it is.
Mr. Fisher : The hon. Gentleman remarks that many national and regional newpapers do not deserve the Bill. However, if they are careful about the accuracy of their reporting, they have nothing to fear from the Bill--contrary to the impression given by many journalists in editorials and features over the past few days. Mr. Aitken I agree that the Bill, even with its undoubted flaws, does not hold out the threat of a sword of Damocles--as I called the amendment--to the decent press. After all, right of reply legislation exists in many other countries without provoking the excitable reaction we have witnessed over the past few days.
There is a cancer growing at the heart of the British press today. At the centre of that cancer is the fact that some tabloid newspapers have moved right away from reporting the news and from all forms of traditional journalism, investigative or otherwise. At the lower end of the tabloid market, journalism has been replaced by voyeurism. The reporter's profession has been infiltrated by a seedy stream of rent boys, pimps, bimbos, spurned lovers, smear artists bearing grudges, prostitutes and perjurers. It is a cast of shame which has not been seen in public since the trial of Oscar Wilde. Yet here it is propping up the pages of the tabloids with monotonous and tasteless regularity. That is the force that makes constituents say to Members of Parliament, "Get on and do something about it".
Mr. Corbyn : The hon. Gentleman draws an excellent analogy between the lack of a right of reply in the United Kingdom and its existence in other countries. Does he agree that Britain and Australia are the two countries with the most concentrated ownership of newspapers and, possibly, the worst quality of tabloids in the world? Countries with a diversity of ownership tend to have a far better quality of average newspaper than we have.
Mr. Aitken : The concentration of ownership is undesirable. As the story of the Irishman goes, "I would not have started from here" with this concentration of ownership in the British press or with the even greater concentration that exists in the Australian press. There could, however, be some advantages in the concentration of ownership when it comes to cleaning up the act. It is not circulation wars, competition or the fight for profits that have brought about this unhappy position. It is, to use an old -fashioned label, the moral standards of certain proprietors and editors which has caused the rot to set in. A newspaper, like a fish, rots from the head
Column 616downwards. Certain newspaper proprietors have given encouragement and promotion to a thoroughly evil clique of lower tabloid editors, whose ruthlessness and recklessnes with the truth is so notorious that their papers publish lies regularly and unashamedly. The House is considering the Bill because Parliament thinks that it is time for the lying to have to stop. The question is : who will stop it? Clearly, the Government are not keen to stop it now. Until today their most memorable contribution to the argument about standards in the lower tabloids was to recommend the previous editor of The Sun for a knighthood. So much for Victorian values. The announcement today of my hon. Friend the Minister that the British tabloids are now on probation is like putting Jack the Ripper or the Boston strangler on probation. It is not likely to be effective. One then turns to the courts, which brings me to the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet. Can the courts in any judicial form with the help of the Lord Chancellor, whose role in this is important, do anything to stop the lying? They are doing their best. Juries' massive awards of libel damages are a symptom of the public's distaste for what is going on, but for every Koo Stark, Elton John or Jeffery Archer, there are 50 ordinary individuals libelled just as gravely in terms of loss of reputation, who simply cannot afford to use the libel laws to seek redress. Courts of law, like the Ritz hotel, are open only to those who can afford them. The tabloids now write into their editorial budgets costs for settling libel actions. It is a lie now, pay later habit. If a tabloid makes as much as £1 million a week, settling two or three libel actions at £30,000 or £40,000 a time makes a small dent in the profits.
To illustrate how ineffective the courts are, even at the most excitable and dramatic end of the scale, I shall run through the most spectacular libel case of them all. This will show why we need the involvement of the Lord Chancellor. The case of Elton John v. The Sun was the worst of its kind, not just because of the viciousness of The Sun's smear capaign or size of the libel damages, but because of the fascinating insight which it gave the world into the techniques and tactics of the newspaper, particularly from the moment after it knew that it had made a disastrous mistake.
The headlines tell their own story. On 25 February 1987, The Sun newspaper splashed across its front page : "Elton in Vice Boys Scandal". On the next day the headline was, "Elton's Kinky Kinks" ; on the next, "Elton's Drug Capers" and on the next, "Elton's Pink Tutu Party". There was a series of allegations about drugs, male prostitutes and bondage. Every smear, criminal and moral, was in those articles.
Those stories were prepared by the editor of The Sun, Mr. Kelvin MacKenzie, and appeared under the byline of his brother, Mr. Craig MacKenzie. That was the gentleman who The Independent told us has a nickname in the confines of The Sun of the "bouncing bog brush". Mr. Murdoch is not in favour of jobs for the boys, but he appears to be in favour of jobs for the brothers and jobs for the bog brushes. Those bouncing bog brushes smeared their filth for days and days across the front page of the newspaper. However, there was a central flaw in those stories. They were entirely made up. They were sheer unadulterated fiction. The basis for those stories was uncorroborated allegations contributed by a rent boy, who appeared in The
Column 617Sun as Mr. Graham X, but whose real name was Mr. Stephen Hardy. He was paid by The Sun £2,000 down and a retainer of £250 a week. In a riveting feature published in The Independent magazine, published in February, Stephen Hardy said :
"97 per cent. of it was untrue. I would give The Sun a line and they would write it all up. It was a manufactured story." What is fascinating about that, and why we need the Lord Chancellor, as suggested in new clause 5, is that The Sun discovered early in the procedure that it was horribly wrong. It had clearly not done its homework, it had not checked the story and it knew that it was printing lies.
What did The Sun do, however, when at the very start of the procedure, Mr. Elton John, through his lawyers, sought a retraction, an apology and a right of reply? Despite knowing that it was wrong--after printing the big lie--it decided it would win through by going for a bigger lie. It then doubled its pressure, as can be seen from the headline on 27 February, which said : "You're a Liar Elton." I might add that that is a familiar technique of The Sun. There was a famous Press Council ruling about a Wapping lorry driver called Mr. McCabe. The Sun printed all kinds of nonsence about him and he went to the Press Council. He obtained a ruling in his favour. The Sun then printed the Press Council's ruling under the headline,
"You' re Still a Lying Trucker."
The Sun continued to scour the planet for more filth on Mr. Elton John. It paid £10,000 for polaroid pictures of him nude with a man, which had nothing to do with its original allegations. The Independent said :
"The Sun's game plan was to keep on hitting Elton John so hard that he would give up long before the judge heard the matter." That is what The Sun tried to do, but Elton John stuck to his guns and he received £1 million in libel damages and an apology from The Sun --which infuriated the judge--"Sorry, Elton." It was a cheeky style of apology.
The story of The Sun's handling of that case has clearly shown what its moral standards are. Paying £1 million must have hurt even Mr. Murdoch's pockets, but clearly it was not enough. Mr. MacKenzie is still in his place. No one appears to have been fired over the incident. There has been no proper apology to the public or to the readers. As the judge said in the case of Elton John, it was a pretty cheeky kind of apology that was eventually printed. Therefore, it is not satisfactory to say that the courts are adequately handling the matter through the antique machinery of the libel laws. If The Sun is making more than £1 million a week, it can afford to pay £1 million in damages.
The Press Council has been held up by the Minister as a great shield and the reason we do not need the Bill : warts and all, the Press Council will do the job for us. However, in the past the Press Council has been absurdly weak and ineffective. We are asked to believe that the arrival of Louis Blom-Cooper--my hon. Friend paid tribute to him when moving the new clause- -means that all will change. It is believed that somehow Hercules has arrived at the Augean stables or Superman has reached the sewage farm. We had the same high hopes when Sir Zelman Cowan was brought from Australia. He presided over the most disastrous deterioration of standards in the history of Fleet Street.
Column 618I am somewhat underwhelmed by the prospect of Mr. Blom-Cooper's new broom. I wish him well, but there are many things wrong with the Press Council. Editors do not have to appear in person, but I am glad that the NUJ is to take up Press Council membership ; that is a step in the right direction. Complainants have no right to an oral inquiry, the findings, if published at all, are published in much too small type and, above all, the Press Council lacks resources.
What on earth is there to stop another Elton John, another McCabe, another spate of excesses? We see them almost daily in the tabloid newspapers. In the end the buck must come back to us. It is all very well to say that the press is on probation and that we should give it one more chance. I would love to believe that that approach would work, but I believe that the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie has done the House and the country a fine service. His Bill is full of flaws and, under parliamentary scrutiny, perhaps it does not deserve to reach the statute book yet--perhaps we need new clause 5 as a long stop.
In the end, unless there is a real change of heart, a new direction of resources and a new determination by the press to clean up its act, we will be back in business again, with some form of ferocious and totally deserved restrictive legislation on the press, which all of us would greatly regret.
Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) : I intend to be brief. We have just listened to a delightful speech from the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not try to follow him in wisdom and humour and if I try to stick to the amendment.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), who introduced the new clause, is a bit unfair on the Lord Chancellor. I would have thought that he had enough problems on his hands dealing with the lawyers, of whom the hon. Gentleman is one, and he should leave the journalists alone. Lord Chief Justice Lane has ludicrously said that the Lord Chancellor is wearing a swastika on his arm and that he is leaning towards the right of Fascism. Lord Justice Donaldson is organising a strike and Queen's counsellors in this House are meeting in the all-party barrister's committee upstairs plotting the Lord Chancellor's downfall and, no doubt, his death. A previous Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, has said that the Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister are guilty of ideological baloney. I would have thought that that was enough for anyone to deal with and a good enough reason for leaving the Home Office to deal with this Bill. I am sure that the Lord Chancellor would have been rather puzzled if he had read the papers this week. He would have pondered on how an unholy alliance has come about between the Home Secretary, the editor of The Guardian, Peter Preston, the editor of The Observer, Donald Trelford and the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). Even the right hon. Gentleman must admit that it is an unholy alliance and that it was not always thus. I am sure that we were all pleased to see that the right hon. Gentleman took about £11,000 from The Guardian for telling lies about him, but I also understand that such an alliance will not always exist in the future. I believe that Donald Trelford, editor of The Observer is trying to make unkind comments about the right hon. Gentleman when he was Secretary of State for Industry concerning some
Column 619shop and the House of Fraser. But they have all come together in a grand alliance and I am sure that the Lord Chancellor will be worried about that.
One serious argument in favour of handing over some of the responsibilities for the Bill to the Lord Chancellor's Department was highlighted when my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) compared the regulation of television with the regulation of the press. I speak as someone who worked in television for four years and as a Member of the NUJ who writes a bit now and then.
There is a genuine worry about the Home Office running the Bill, which might be a good argument in favour of the Lord Chancellor. The Home Office has used a system of censorship that has, for a long time, been secretive and unpleasant. Last night I was reading some history about the way in which censorship has operated in broadcasting. I asked myself whether we want the Home Secretary and, with great respect, the Minister present to have anything to do with the Bill? I thought back to the early 1980s when a television programme "Death of a Princess" was broadcast. Immediately the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary responded to criticism from Saudi Arabia and said that trade was more important than freedom of speech. They believed that we should censor that programme and that we should not show it again. More recently, I thought about another drama documentary. "Tumbledown", which dealt with the Falklands war. The Home Office made quiet noises, saying "We really do not think that this programme should be shown. There ought to be some censorship--some restriction of freedom of expression."
I thought about another television programme, "Death on the Rock". Again, the Home Office made it clear that it did not want the programme to be shown. I remember "Real Lives", a television film in which a former Home Secretary was shifted elsewhere and then shunted off to Europe as part of his hurry-on-down process--I refer to Sir Leon Brittan.
I thought of the Zircon film, which again the Home Office did not want shown and which was suppressed. I thought of "My Country, right or wrong", another BBC programme that the Home Office wanted to be suppressed. I even thought of a drama which the Home Office had managed to stop, "Left Over People" by Tom Pickard. I remembered the BBC's attempts to secure a repeat of a drama called "United Kingdom" by Roland Joffe , on which I was a researcher.
Surely it would be better for the Bill to be dealt with by the Lord Chancellor than by the Home Secretary and the Minister who tried to censor all those programmes. The Home Office's record of censorship is appalling. Why are the editors of so-called radical papers, Peter Preston of The Guardian and Donald Trelford of The Observer, forming an unholy alliance to blast off against my hon. Friend's modest little Bill? It makes me wonder whether someone ought to pass the sick bag.
Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston) : The new clause and amendments raise two important questions--first, whether the Bill should come into effect on the day on which it is passed or at a later date, and, secondly, whether the Home Secretary or the Lord Chancellor should administer it.
Column 620The amendments, and the debate on them, illustrate the difficulties of the Bill, which I mentioned on Second Reading--the confusion between the judicial remedies and the types of remedy provided by the Press Council and the press commission, and the constitutional difficulty of Government-appointed nominees correcting factual errors in the press.
Obviously no Minister is rushing forward to carry out the responsibilities imposed by the Bill. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) seemed to see some sinister reason for the Government's lack of enthusiasm for the task, but I see some virtue in their reluctance to grapple with such powers. That reluctance stems from a recognition of the constitutional dangers of Government becoming involved in the correction of errors in the press. The examples quoted by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) illustrate the possible difficulties of a confrontation between the Government and the press about a number of sensitive matters.
I accept that, when circumstances require the exercise of something resembling judicial functions, there is a strong case for making the Lord Chancellor responsible for appointments and for the administration of the legislation. Recommendations have been made that planning and transport inspectors should come under the aegis of the Lord Chancellor, and I see the force of such arguments in the present context. I suggest that the duties that the Bill would impose would sit uneasily with the Lord Chancellor's other duties. The appointment of the Lord Chancellor to this task implies that the body to be created would be a much more judicial body than would really be the case. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is involved with broadcasting and television, I am led to the conclusion that, if a Minister is to be given the job, it should be given to him rather than to the Lord Chancellor.
I hope that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) will tell us what he thinks about the starting date of the Bill. He says that history will be on the side of the Bill, but at no point did I hear him say that Opposition Front Bench spokesmen are behind it or its starting date. I heard him speak on Second Reading and I listened to his speech today. I should like him to clarify when, if at all, he considers that the Bill ought to come into force. I listened with great sympathy to what was said by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) both on Second Reading and again today, and I share the admiration that has been expressed about the way he has conducted the Bill. However, the two difficulties that I have mentioned prevent me from supporting it. I believe that we should benefit from a delay in the starting date of the Bill, if it were to reach the statute book, in order to assess the reforms that the Press Council is undertaking. I envisage greater benefits from the reform of the Press Council than from the somewhat inadequate remedies that the Bill contains.
For those reasons, I do not support the inclusion of the Lord Chancellor in the Bill. I support, however, the deferment of the starting date so that there may be more time for further reflection.
Mr. Tebbit : I oppose the new clause for slightly different reasons from those that were given by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore). As is known, there has been an unholy
Column 621alliance between myself and Mr. Peter Preston, who courageously published in his newspaper an article by me that attacked strongly his newspaper's record on this matter and brought out the fact that I had been forced to go to law to clear my name after an unfair and untrue allegation was published in his paper. That shows an element of courtesy and decency by The Guardian. I do not usually praise that newspaper, so I take this opportunity to do so.
The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch made the interesting point that he does not trust the Home Secretary to deal with these matters because of his record on the electronic media. He ought, therefore, to come all the way with me and say that he does not trust the record of Ministers or politicians as showing that they have any influence whatsoever over what the press should or should not publish. In that case, he would become, with me, an opponent of the Bill in general.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) said, that does not mean that there is not a great deal that is wrong with certain sections of the press. If we can find a way to bring more pressure to bear on them to change their attitudes, I am all for it. What gives me the greatest unease--whether it is the Lord Chancellor or the Home Secretary--is that Ministers would have the power to appoint people to what is called a press commission that would inevitably seek more and more power to deal with what the commission regard as press abuses.
We should not accept the new clause, although it was introduced so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), because when something gets into the hands of the legal profession and the Lord Chancellor it moves away from things that we ordinary mortals may comment on into a rarefied area where people go all judicial on us. It is very difficult to get Law Officers into a debate in the House about the conduct of their Department's affairs. It is not nearly so difficult to deal with a Secretary of State or a Home Secretary. That is why I disagree with my hon. Friend. The most important result of the activities of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie is that the Government have been forced to think seriously about the extent of their responsibility for putting pressure on the press to publish or not to publish. I am totally against the so-called right of reply being a statutory right enforced by state-appointed commissioners. Quite rightly, the Government have concluded that they should conduct a broad-based inquiry and we should await any recommendations that might be produced.
"shall issue guidelines and advice as necessary to improve editorial standards."?
Does that not mean that Government-appointed commissioners could begin to judge exactly what the editorial content of newspapers may or may not be? That would be an extremely slippery slope.
Column 622As a consequence of the efforts of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) newspaper proprietors must be beginning to think that, however many friends of the free press sit in the House--and I believe that the great majority of us believe in the concept of a free press--sooner or later we shall be rolled over by the forces of those who are prepared to dilute the freedom of the press to deal with a perceived wrong. That would be extremely dangerous.
Like many of the other irritants of democracy that we have to put up with, a free press is part of the price we have to pay. I am willing to pay that price. I have been hurt by the press more than once. Occasionally one can come back on the press, if one has the resources to do so. Most people cannot, but it is part of the price we pay for democracy. The press barons have to acknowledge that part of the price they must pay for the right to run newspapers, make profits out of newspapers and influence opinion through newspapers is that those newspapers have to be decent in the terms set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). It has been noticed that a certain group of newspapers appears to have changed slightly. Another group of newspapers adopts various standards for different newspapers in the group.
I would not say that the Daily Mirror is guiltless. Such headings as, "And you're a liar too", and "You're still a liar" did not only appear in The Sun, but also appeared in the Daily Mirror. There would be great disputes across the Floor of the House and elsewhere as to whether those headlines were true.
Standards have to be improved and today's debate must send a signal to those press barons saying, "If you want to continue to be in business with a free press in a free country, you must consider whether, exceptionally, a proprietor has not only the right but the responsibility to put pressure on his editors to behave in a manner which would enhance the reputation of the press and not damage it."
Mr. Fisher : To my surprise, I find myself in sympathy with much of what was said by the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). Like him, I cannot support the new clause, even though I enjoyed the amusing and elegant way in which it was moved by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). I was somewhat surprised, even shocked, by the vicious attack he launched on his right hon. Friend--I use the word "Friend" loosely or conventionally--the Secretary of State for Wales. Such clear splits in the Government so close to the by-election in the Vale of Glamorgan will have been noted.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne raised some important issues. He addressed himself most clearly to the question of which Department should have responsibility for appointment. The prior and implicit issue raised in that is whether any Department should be involved. It is on this point that I have sympathy with the right hon. Member for Chingford. If we are serious about the independence of the press and broadcasting, we have to do everything we can to loosen Government ties. That is easier said than done. It is not only a matter of legislation. It is potently a matter of patronage in the appointment of members of the BBC, the IBA and commissions such as the press commission.
Column 623Although I strongly support everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has done in promoting the Bill, he knows that we have had differences of opinion and that I have some grave reservations about this part of the Bill. It leaves to the Government--any Government--patronage in appointing members of the press commission. We have to find some way of establishing independence. That is not easy, and it is not something that Her Majesty's Opposition have yet cracked.
The growth of patronage spreads across and weakens public life. The fingers of Government, whichever party is in power, are spread so widely across many public bodies in which it is not only unnecessary but counter- productive for the Government to be involved. Therefore, I agree with the right hon. Member for Chingford. However, the methods that one can envisage of creating independence in any such body and finding other ways through which those people can be appointed are either cumbersomely democratic or not yet clear to me.
Mr. Tebbit : It is not often that we find ourselves in so much agreement. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to come with me the next step of the way and say that it would be infinitely preferable if we did not have to have these forms of control, which inevitably mean that somebody--and who else but the Government?--has to appoint commissioners of some sort. I look forward to the day when there are as many channels on our radio and television as there are channels available in the press and when we can get rid of Government control of any sort, except in respect of decency, over television and radio. I hope that he will join me in that view.
Mr. Fisher : The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that I will not join him in that view. There is a great deal of difference between the Government having a direct influence and control through patronage, and the responsibility of the Government, on behalf of our society, to set a framework that protects the rights of individuals and in which a diversity of programmes can be ensured in our broadcasting media.
Mr. Grocott : At the risk of driving a further wedge between my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) I must say that if there is to be Government involvement, it is better that it is understood and in statute than if it is the type of Government pressure that came from the right hon. Member for Chingford when he was a senior Minister in the Government. He applied quite nasty pressure on the BBC but he has been honest enough to admit that. I put it to him once that he had made veiled threats to the leaders of the BBC and he was honest enough to say, "When I make threats, they are not veiled."
Mr. Fisher : That succinct turn of phrase has a ring of authenticity. The right hon. Member for Chingford is nodding to confirm that he is the true author and begetter of the phrase. The phrase does him more credit than the instinct. I was in my local radio station the day after he made that statement in September or October 1986, and the effect of it on senior and experienced journalists was worrying. They were struck and concerned by such overt pressure from someone who was then a senior member of the Government.
Mr. Tebbit : The essence of the remark was that if I had made a threat it would have been open because I do not make behind-the-doors threats, such as those that have been made by some Governments in the past. I made no threat whatever because there was no open threat. The hon. Gentleman will not find on the record anywhere a threat that I made against the broadcasting authorities. There was a lot of pressure, yes, to tell the truth and to balance it fairly, but no threat.
Curiously, under this Government and previous Governments, press matters are dealt with by the Department of Trade and Industry. The broadcasting world has been interested by the power struggle between the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Home Secretary. I am glad that in this instance the Home Secretary has been supreme and that the Minister of State, Home Office has guided the legislation.
Mr. Skinner : I have just had an article passed to me about the right of reply. It appears that the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) has been busily demanding a right of reply of the Waltham Guardian of 20 April 1989. The right hon. Gentleman complained in a letter that his name had been left out. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) and other hon. Members are mentioned in this article. Although the right hon. Member for Chingford opposes this Bill, he demanded a right of reply from the editor of the Waltham Guardian and got one. The editor says ; "Our apologies to Mr. Tebbit for the arm twisting". No, that is not him. He says :
"The omission was due to a paragraph falling off at the printers. Of course he has played a part in trying to remedy the Waltham Forest court situation, which we reported, and we are grateful to him and the borough's two other MPs. We are always ready to publish corrections to these reports where inaccuracies make a fundamental difference."
The truth is that if many people in Waltham Forest had written to the editor and said, "I want my letter printed and a right of reply" they would have been refused.