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Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I am listening carefully. The proceedings will not be secret. They will be published in full. Therefore, every member of the public who wants to read the whole transcript will have the chance of doing so.
Mr. Morris: I am glad to have an opportunity to correct what the hon. Gentleman says. It was said also by some other hon. Members earlier in the debate. Let me make it clear that it will be for the Committee of Privileges to decide whether the evidence is published in total, just as it was for the Select Committee on Members' Interests to decide, as it did, that large sections of the evidence given in the case of our former colleague, John Browne, the then Member for Winchester, would be deleted from its report.
Sir Jim Spicer: It is not a matter of dispute--certainly with me-- that the evidence should be given in total at the end of the proceedings. The only exception would be that, where criminal prosecutions might follow from the proceedings, of necessity and on the advice of the Attorney- General, the evidence would have to be debarred from going into the public domain. That surely negates half of what has been said in the Chamber tonight.
Mr. Morris: The hon. Gentleman has already entered his own caveat. I repeat that it would be for the Committee of Privileges, not for any individual member of the Committee, to decide whether or not the proceedings were to be reported in their entirety. I am certain that the Committee will consider in due time very carefully whether it is legally proper for it to publish every aspect and detail of the evidence.
Mr. Morris: I must proceed. The hon. Gentleman has intervened several times previously. I must proceed because I have been asked, as we have all been asked by the Chair, to speak as briefly as possible.
I was saying that the public resented being kept in the dark: "They have lost faith in their leaders."
Mr. Morris: The hon. and learned Gentleman says no. They are not my words. They are the verdict given last Friday by Lord Nolan, appointed by the Prime Minister to chair the committee which will review standards in public life. His verdict makes it all the more important that all Committees of this House should now meet in secret only where sensitive or potentially prejudicial evidence makes it essential for them to do so.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly insisted that the Privileges Committee must meet only in private because it has always met in private, but other important Committees have already dragged themselves into the 20th century while there are still a few years of it left.
Column 1246Until fairly recently, the Defence Select Committee always met in private, but today, like other Select Committees which always used to meet in private, it now very often meets in public.
There has been a sea change since my book "The Growth of Parliamentary Scrutiny by Committee" was published in 1971. Then it was almost unheard of for Select Committees to meet in public, but millions of people of all persuasions now find it incomprehensible that the Prime Minister is insisting on secrecy. Not only The Guardian and the Observer, but the Daily Mail and The Sun , among many other national newspapers, most strongly back the motion for this debate.
The Prime Minister must presumably have known since 18 October of the suggestion to allow the Committee to meet in camera if, for any legal or other compelling reason, more especially one of natural justice, it was proper for it to do so. The same balance is struck between open and private hearings in thousands of courtrooms up and down this country every week. It is the British way. The Prime Minister must also know that Select Committees and other important Committees of the House would still be meeting by lamp and candlelight if precedent had been all that mattered.
Why then is he so obviously angry, notwithstanding the safeguards available, about all suggestions for open sittings of the Committee? The anger of his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) last Tuesday, and again in replying to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) last Thursday, was seen by huge audiences. Perhaps the most charitable way of describing his behaviour in this House on both occasions is to say that he blew in, blew up and blew out.
In 16 years as a Privy Councillor, I cannot remember a moment when the need to improve Parliament's standing with the British people was more pressing than it is today. Not only is the conduct of Ministers and Members of Parliament under attack. Parliament as a whole is demeaned and diminished by the widely held conception now that the democratic process can no longer be trusted. That was why I wanted, and want now, the compromise between total secrecy and meeting only in public that I suggested on 18 October.
A question put to me at the weekend was why, in the very week when the Government ended the right to silence by means of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, the Prime Minister should so strongly have insisted on secrecy for proceedings in this building. There is public concern as well that the majority of 9:8 for allowing the Privileges Committee to meet only in private--as revealed in the statement by the Leader of the House to parliamentary journalists after the Committee's meeting on 18 October-- included two senior members of the Government. Had they left the non- Ministers on the Committee to decide the issue, the Committee would now be meeting in public.
This debate provides all of us with the opportunity to restore confidence in this House. Let us grasp the opportunity without either individual or party animus, as our contribution to improving standards in public life.
Column 1247party political matter, and that in a very real sense the public's faith in Parliament is at issue. Having said that, we must recognise that the public expect things to be done in public. Since I support the amendment and believe that the existing arrangements for the Privileges Committee should stand, I have a responsibility to explain why the Committee should not sit in public. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House put forward the usual fundamental, traditional and entirely valid arguments as to why that should be so. I shall elaborate on those reasons, and I hope to persuade even those hon. Members who have spoken--perhaps even the Leader of the Opposition--why the amendment to the motion should be carried and the matter left in the hands of the Privileges Committee. I hope that it will continue to press for the traditional view, which successive Committees have set out.
I am Chairman of the Liaison Committee, and have for a long while been heavily involved with Select Committees. The fact that those Committees take evidence in public has been of tremendous importance in holding the Executive to account. Very often, the evidence given in public and on television has been more important than the reports produced, or even than debates on the Floor of this House. Having said that, I go along with the traditional view that the Privileges Committee ought not to sit in public.
One thing that one learns in this place is that our proceedings might seem old-fashioned, anachronistic or strange, but it is only when one changes them that one discovers why they were as they were in the first place. It is therefore worth while setting out the reasons for the precedent--which is not to say that the Committee cannot change it if it so wishes, as that is its right. None the less, the traditional arguments why the Committee should sit in private are very strong.
The Leader of the Opposition exemplified some of the confusion when he said:
"the normal procedure in courts of law is that hearings are held in public . . . Why will the Prime Minister not allow the investigations"
by the Privileges Committee
"to be held in public?"--[ Official Report , 27 October 1994; Vol.248, c. 1003.]
First, it has nothing to do with the Prime Minister: it is a matter for the Privileges Committee. In any case, the Committee is not a court of law, and none of the protections of natural justice that people have in a court of law exist in that Committee.
The Opposition motion refers to "natural justice" and the need to preserve it. The dilemma is that it is difficult to understand how the Committee will be able to ensure that natural justice is preserved if the hearings are held in public. To elaborate, the Committee will have to make some difficult choices about which evidence to take in public. The decisions will undoubtedly create a furore. If we have a problem at present because people ask why the Committee sits in private at all, there will be constant questions in the press once it is decided that some matters are to be discussed in private and others in public.
Even if the Committee makes that difficult choice, it is still far from clear whether the protections of natural justice will apply overall. Some of the people who give evidence and are discussed and examined in private might
Column 1248be protected, but they will not be protected from what other people might say in public. It is not merely a question of protecting the accused, even if they have been accused only in very vague terms: it will also be a question of protecting them from what witnesses may say in public.
To recap and elaborate on some of the arguments of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House--
Sir John Gorst rose --
As was said earlier, no formal charges are laid before the Privileges Committee. There is also no legal representation. The Attorney-General is a member, and other members--for example the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), who is on the Opposition Front Bench--have legal experience, but they are not appearing as counsel for the accused; that is the case where cross-examination is concerned.
In the Maxwell case, it was possible for legal counsel to appear on behalf of witnesses. Of course, that would be possible in this case, but it would fundamentally alter the way in which the Committee operates, leaving aside the question of who would pay for counsel. There are other arguments. Witnesses would not normally appear on oath, although there is some precedent for that. If they lied, it would be a contempt of the House, but there is virtually no limit to what anyone could say or what allegations he or she could make--whether he or she was a newspaper proprietor, editor or whatever--under the protection of parliamentary privilege. If someone made false allegations or lied, it is not clear what sanctions could be imposed on them, as it is not set out clearly in our proceedings. Witnesses could make wild allegations to the Committee.
All those reasons--the traditional reasons why the Privileges Committee sits in private--seem overwhelming. Having said that, some hon. Members have argued that it is important for justice to be seen to be done. I fear that, if the hearings were held in public, justice would be seen not to be done. People would be open to false allegations, with no effective defence.
We must take into account another fundamental change--the advent of television--which is important. If the Committee decided to sit in public, it would have no control over whether it was televised. That is a matter for a separate body. It would be inconceivable that it would not be televised if it decided to sit in public--a vastly different situation from that described by the Father of the House when he quoted Lord Callaghan. We have a very real problem. Worse than that, the end result would be trial by television, but trial of a very distorted sort. The O. J. Simpson trial is on television in the United States, but at least there are some legal restraints on what is said, and some legal protections. Someone appearing before the Privileges Committee would not have that same protection. Allegations could be made, which would appear on television and be reported long before anyone could rebut or deal with them.
Column 1249That is a very dangerous path down which to go. In particular, we know perfectly that we would not see the entire interview or session of the Committee. A quick sound bite from Mr. Al Fayed, the editor of The Guardian or whoever is making an accusation against a Member of this House would appear on "News at Ten" or "Newsnight" totally out of context. If that is likely to be justice, I take leave to doubt it.
I believe, for all those reasons, that there are strong arguments against the Privileges Committee sitting in public. Having said that, it is a matter for the Committee to decide. I hope that, in making a very difficult initial decision, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and others will take into account the points which I have just made. It is a very dangerous road down which to go. Four Opposition Members so far, who appear to have expressed the view that the matters ought to be taken by the Privileges Committee in public. I hope that they will reflect carefully before they continue to go along that particular route, and that they will realise some of the dangers which that would involve.
I agree with the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), that it is crucial that the matter is proceeded with as rapidly as possible. The law's delays--even though the Committee is not a court of law--ought not to apply in this affair, and we must reach a rapid conclusion. I believe that it is right that the Committee should examine the matter and deliberate in private, and that it should then publish very carefully the evidence that it has received and the conclusions which it has reached.
Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley): I shall remind the House of my interests, which are declared in the Register. I am sponsored by the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, I have a subsidised office in Sheffield which is provided by the council and I receive other small donations.
I admit that I never imagined that asking the simple question whether the whole or part of the sittings and investigations of the Privileges Committee should be made in public would create such a gnawing and gnashing of teeth. I find it incredible; it is not as if the evidence that will be presented is not already in the public arena. Nor did I ever imagine standing in the House and being restricted from making relevant points because I happened to be serving behind closed doors on the Privileges Committee. I intervened earlier during the speech of the Leader of the House, and I was slapped down for being out of order.
There is a vacuum in this debate as to how the decision was reached, and whether it was creating a precedent for the Chair to have a casting vote and for the Attorney-General to be offering advice every five minutes when hon. Members were raising points. We are in a very difficult position. I do not know exactly how I should put my case, but I shall do my best.
I shall give one instance where it seems that I was creating precedent, although I did not know it. I phoned the Clerk of the Committee to ask whether I might see the minutes of the meeting on 18 October. There was silence for a time--basically because I do not think that
Column 1250an hon. Member had ever asked for the minutes of a meeting of that nature. I was told bluntly that minutes were taken and recorded, but that they were not for the eyes of Committee members until the final written report was published.
That means, of course, that not only can I not speak on what happened in the Committee, but I cannot even read the minutes until months later to see whether they are accurate. If that is not a good argument for opening the Committee up to the public from day one, I do not know what is. My experience of the Committee--limited though it may be--has convinced me that that should be the case.
When I decided to withdraw from the Committee, some of my hon. Friends reminded me that it was a very big step to take because some hon. Members had served on the Privileges Committee for 30 years. My answer to that was, "That is their decision. I have been on it for 30 days, and I'm off." I did that because I felt that I was under a tremendous strain.
I do not blame people outside who ask what is going on here. We are talking about the most powerful Committee of the House and it does not even have to accept the vote tonight if it is in favour of the Opposition motion. The Committee does not need to take any notice, and there are no instructions that this place can give to the Committee. I have always argued that the more one has an inner sanctum of power, the more essential it is for democracy that that sanctum be opened up to public scrutiny. I feel that very strongly. The issues have already been in the public eye. The very hon. Members who are likely to be interviewed by the Committee have already been in public themselves and made their contributions in front of the cameras. There is nothing that has not already been in public view, and I do not understand why we should suddenly close all the doors and make sure that nothing is said or done in public. Today, the public demand far more information than they have ever done before. There is a bad taste which I believe must be washed away, and we cannot wash it away in secret. I was not elected--my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said the same--to come down here and to sit on secret Committees of this nature. The longer I am in the House, the stronger I feel that we should open up the doors even more to clear the air. That means opening the doors of the Privileges Committee to the public.
It has been argued in the Committee and since the Committee first sat that we cannot trust the broadcast media or the press. If we think about it, the argument goes further than that--it means that we cannot trust the public, and that we must leave it to right hon. and hon. Members to do the job for us. It has also been said that we are all right hon. and hon. Members, and that surely we can trust ourselves. It is said that we trust one another across the Committee, although I am not sure whether we do to that extent. But even if we did trust each other, that is not the issue. The issue is whether the public trust us.
Following the leaks and innuendoes which have come out of this place during the past few months, if not years, the public are less inclined to trust us on issues of this nature. That is the real issue, and hon. Members cannot run away from that. It is no good the House threatening the press, or threatening hon. Members if they say anything untoward, try to break ranks from the so-called
Column 1251"traditions", create precedents, start a whole new ball rolling, and cause problems that will embarrass the House more and more. I say "threatening hon. Members", because to some extent I feel threatened by the fact that I must be careful what I say, and I cannot present my feelings about the procedures of the Committee.
I almost feel as if I were a little naughty boy who is talking out of school, out of turn and out of class. I do not mind being treated like a little boy who cannot be trusted. I would rather have that than the public thinking that I was a bent big boy. I will always do my best to make sure that the people who elected me get as much information as possible. If the Committee insists on remaining secret, its report will not have credibility among the public.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent): I do not think anyone would object to the public's being given information, but the anxiety is that the public could be given misinformation of a kind that damaged someone's reputation-- I do not care whether that person is a Member of Parliament, a journalist or a hotelier. Someone could appear before a Committee and, under the guise of parliamentary privilege, say something that was manifestly untrue. Even if that statement was believed by a handful of people for just five minutes, it would do enormous damage.
Mr. Michie: I take the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has just said, such statements are made in the House every day at Question Time and in other Committees. After all, some scandals that have been reported in the media for years finish up as a ding-dong argument between spokesmen at the Dispatch Box. There is nothing new in that. There is no difference between such behaviour and the protection offered under privilege.
The argument put by the hon. Member for Mid-Kent about the media misinterpreting information was also put to the Privileges Committee. We were told that if the media were allowed to attend the Committee we would end up with a media circus. I do not know where those hon. Members who argue that have been for the past few months, because we are in a media circus already. It exists because the media do not really know what is going on; they are putting two and two together and are sometimes getting five. When that happens, the press is accused of inaccuracies.
If the House does not allow information to be recorded verbatim and truths to be published, the result is bound to be inaccurate reporting and speculation that damages the House and hon. Members, both those who are involved and those who are not.
The conclusions that the public and the press arrive at may not always be correct, but they are the best that they can reach given the amount of information that they are allowed to glean from leaks, conversations behind closed doors and little whispers here and there. I do not blame the media and the public for getting things wrong; I blame the House, because it is hiding behind secrecy on issues that should be debated in the public arena.
Column 1252I feel strongly about this matter and that is why I withdrew from the Committee. I will not attend any further sittings if they continue to be held in secret. I have no doubt in my mind about that. I therefore plead with the House to show a little bit of common sense today. It should accept the Opposition motion because times have changed. We have television in the House and more and more members of the public walk around this building in the morning because they have an interest in the place--an interest created by the press and television. If we take away the public's right to have more and more information in this modern day and age, this place will be looked on not only as quaint but as strangely out of touch with reality. Such a decision would do a disservice to the House.
Therefore, I repeat my plea to hon. Members--let us open the doors, let us have the truth and let us have no misleading statements. Let the public judge and not just peers of the House.
In my view, it would be quite wrong if the Committee sat in private and produced a recommendation to the House and kept its proceedings secret. That is not in accordance with precedent, however, which dictates that the Committee sits in private and publishes a full transcript of everything that is said and done.
I have in my hand the report of the Committee of Privileges for the 1989-90 Session. The table of contents includes the Committee's report; its proceedings; the list of witnesses; the list of memoranda included in the minutes of evidence; the minutes of evidence, which give hon. Members' contributions word for word; and an appendix to the minutes of evidence. That is not a secret document; it is a full and complete account of what happened in the Committee.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) is not still in his place, because he said that the Prime Minister had insisted on the Committee's proceedings being conducted in secret. That was not the Prime Minister's decision, but the decision of the majority of the Committee. Labour Members have left that Committee en bloc because they have refused to accept the democratic decision of a majority on that Committee.
There are three cogent reasons, hallowed by time, why we should sit in private but publish everything afterwards. First, I do not want a witness to come before the Committee with his account of a conversation having had the benefit of hearing someone else's account of that same conversation. I want the pure water of the evidence as to how that witness recalled events, without having been nudged or fudged by his having heard someone else's account of the same conversation. Secondly, I do not believe that we will have an objective approach through a televised, American court, Perry Mason type public hearing. I remind the House that the Press Complaints Commission does not sit in public and if it does not, why should we? Thirdly, I fear that the Committee's proceedings will be turned into a media circus. I can just imagine the full television coverage. The editor of The Sunday Times
Column 1253might be asked to appear before the Committee and asked why he published the story. No doubt he would say that he did so because the paper is a great British institution, which holds the high moral ground in leading the campaign to improve ethics in Parliament. He would no doubt also claim that his was the only paper with the courage to expose the full horrors and that it was his determination to bring his readers the full story; and so on and so on. We would present a marvellous media opportunity to a particular national newspaper. There is no way in which we could stop that from happening, because the editor is almost certain to be one of the witnesses called. We would offer that newspaper prime advertising time and no doubt it would follow that up with its own suitably selected report of the Committee's proceedings.
I have been in the House for 30 years and, from time to time, people ask me whether things have changed much. I reply that they have not, but that what has changed are the media, and the press in particular. Thirty years ago, one used to know that the news and the facts would appear in one part of a newspaper and the editorials and an editor's views in another. Now we have an amalgam and it is very difficult to distinguish the views of a newspaper, depending on what campaign or crusade it is running on a particular day, from the facts. They are no longer kept sacrosanctly separate.
I am interested in the Opposition's motivation in wanting to change precedent. Put simply, they want to ingratiate themselves with the media in the hope and expectation of a quid pro quo--that the press and other media will repay them with favours in the years to come. For that reason, I hope that their grubby little motion is thrown out.
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East): I should like to put the Ulster Unionist party's point of view, on behalf of my colleagues. We noticed that the motion is intended to allow public access to the Committee of Privileges, in the belief that that will restore public confidence not only in Members individually but in Parliament as an institution. We came to the conclusion that the reason for a lack of public confidence in this place and its Members is the various allegations of misdemeanours and "sleaze", to use the popular term which has been bandied about in the past few weeks. Those allegations have tarnished the reputation of Members and the standing of Parliament in the public mind.
There is an old truism that hard cases make bad law. That would appear to fly in the face of the reaction of most people whenever they are confronted with a hard case. The truth of that saying remains, however, because changes in law in response to a particularly bad case normally result in bad law. Those changes are normally forced by the emotions aroused rather than because of a careful consideration of the facts relating to the general class of evils that that change in law is intended to correct.
In recent years, two examples have passed through the House. The first was the community charge legislation, which, although it appeared to have a sound base, led to all sorts of horrendous uproar. In a more recent example --the Child Support Agency legislation--a whole field full
Column 1254of dragon's teeth is now sprouting. No one foresaw all that would follow the passing of those two pieces of legislation.
The current procedures in Committees of the House, especially the one that we are discussing, were arrived at after considering how best to deal with allegations made to the Privileges Committee in a calmer atmosphere than has prevailed in recent days.
The motion is an effort to give a measure of direction to the Committee, and it would set a bad precedent if we followed that line. It applies pressure on the Committee to follow a certain course and if, for any reason, the Committee failed to follow that course, what a hullabaloo would then arise. A considerable number of hon. Members who have spoken in this debate have already alluded to that fact in some form.
My party believes that the Committee should be free to make up its own mind at all times, for if it followed the motion, it would make matters much worse. It is not a court of law and the normal rules do not apply. There is no way in which the Chair could prevent allegations being blasted out and broadcast on radio and television as if they were the gospel truth. We all know what has happened about the allegations that have already been made. They are presented as proven facts and some are in the process of court action. Moreover, whenever the Committee moved into private session, even greater suspicion would be aroused, much inflamed by the media if their behaviour to date is anything to go by. I foresee endless allegations that the juiciest bits of the scandal under discussion in the Committee were being covered up. In those circumstances, we also have difficulty with the fact that if a criminal wrongdoing became evident, no prosecution could follow because the whole matter would already have gone through a kangaroo court in the press and the Committee.
May I end with some advice that originated from America: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That is sound advice to follow in this instance.
Allegations made against hon. Members must be thoroughly investigated for three reasons: first, so that the House may know precisely what happened, without innuendo or suspicion; secondly, so that the public may also know; and, thirdly, in fairness to the Members concerned. The question now before the House is whether those three objectives, which are entirely equal in importance, can be better met by the Committee meeting in camera or publicly. I have no doubt about the answer.
If the proceedings are held in camera, the House will know precisely what occurred. I could not believe that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) could think that there would be no report. The whole point is that the public and, particularly, the House want to know, and the Members concerned want justice. It is nonsense to say that, at the end of all the proceedings, the full details of what was discussed, who answered what questions, put by whom, will not be made public. Nothing will be secret or withheld unless there are clear legal
Column 1255reasons why certain sections of the proceedings should be withheld. The Leader of the House has already alluded to those.
Broadly, no member of the Committee would want to keep the proceedings secret once conclusions have been reached. When the Committee report is published, the public will be able to see, read or buy the whole report, and Parliament will debate it. How could Parliament debate it if no report is published?
Sir Peter Emery: The important fact that my hon. Friend has missed out is that the evidence will be published. Thus, all the evidence will be known at one time rather than in dribs and drabs, as it would be if the Committee were held in public.
Dame Jill Knight: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I was coming to that point, but I shall not reiterate it because of the lack of time. All the Committee's deliberations will be published at the right time. The public will then know what has happened and be able to judge, not in fits and starts from sound bites, headlines, Jeremy Paxman, Rupert Murdoch, screams and yells, bias and innuendo, and daily mudslinging, but the complete and balanced report will be there for everyone to see.
The Members concerned will be able to answer questions freely, speak in their defence, and have their words noted, although they are certain to have to face extremely tough questioning. There is no doubt about that, whoever attends the Committee.
If the proceedings are entirely public, with television cameras and radio microphones, the matter will undoubtedly become a media circus. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) made that point. We all know how grossly unfair the media can be. The public will have no chance of getting a balanced or accurate idea of what is going on. Somebody once said, "Why look in the crystal ball when you can read the book?" I would say, "Why read the book when you can call on your own experience?"
Most of us know perfectly well what often happens when we agree to take part in a television programme and put forward a certain point of view, or explain or justify why something has happened or why our party is not culpable in the way described. Along we go and put our point of view. Then what happens? When the programme is broadcast, it has been chopped about and altered because it does not fit the picture that the producer wants conveyed. That has happened to me countless times and I know that it has happened to hon. Friends, too. "I have made up my mind," say the producers. "Don't confuse me with the facts," and on they go. All too often, they do not produce a fair and balanced report.
Over the weekend, a national newspaper carried a letter from a member of the public saying that he had written to a different national newspaper making what he considered an important point. The editor had phoned him and said, "I will print your letter, provided that you chop out the middle of it because that is not the story that I am trying to put forward"-- [Interruption.] Some of my hon. Friends have clearly seen the case, too. My point is that editors and producers of radio or television programmes have no conscience. They want to put a certain picture to the public, never mind the facts.
Column 1256Only today on the front page of The Daily Telegraph , broadcaster and writer Jonathan Dimbleby said that his words in a book about Prince Charles were
"distorted and misinterpreted to the point where they became lies"
"reported . . . around the world as if they were true". If they can do that to the great Jonathan Dimbleby, and the possibly even greater Prince Charles, and members of the public, is any of us safe? We live in a world of sound bites, and if the Privileges Committee proceedings are filmed and broadcast, the words on the evening television news or the front page headlines will--there is no doubt about it--convey an entirely inaccurate impression of what is going on.
Picture the scene. A Member puts a question to the accused: "You took other money from other sources, didn't you?" Next day, we will read, all over the front pages: "Fresh allegations" or "Other bribes were taken", when nothing of the kind has happened. Every hon. Member knows quite well that that will happen. Is there anyone, even on the Opposition Benches, who thinks that that would be fair to the Members concerned?
Dame Jill Knight: My argument is absolutely clear--there is no hope of any hon. Member who appears before the Privileges Committee obtaining a fair hearing and a balanced judgment if the television cameras are present.
We all care deeply that the reputation and honour of the House should not be compromised. There is no question of keeping any misbehaviour or dishonourable action hidden--none of us wants that--but the honour of the House also demands fair treatment for those who are accused. They will have no hope of fair treatment if the wolves and hyenas of the fourth estate are unleashed while the Committee is sitting.
In the past few weeks and months, we have watched the press and broadcasters lie, cheat, forge and distort to obtain a story. Make no mistake--when they do, all of us are diminished by the process. It is no news to say that the overwhelming number of Members on both sides of the House are honourable men and women, but it is true. It is not, however, headline news. What is headline news is the very few who do not match up to the House's standards. We must guard our reputation, especially our reputation for fairness to colleagues.