Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree): Hear, hear.

Mr. Straw: I look forward to more such letters arriving by the hour. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman will ultimately accept that clause 6 is the best and more workable definition of public authorities that we could achieve.

Sir Norman Fowler: "Exquisite clarity" is not exactly the phrase that comes to my mind, but I acknowledge that the Lord Chancellor admitted that he had made a mistake. On 18 November, he said, having previously said precisely the opposite, that it was possible that the Press Complaints Commission would, after all, be held to be a public authority under the Bill when it became law. An opinion given to the PCC by David Pannick QC had persuaded him that it probably would be. That confirms, of course, that the Lord Chancellor made a spectacular legal U-turn.

Now, after several months of rather tortuous progress, we can all agree that the PCC is indeed a public authority and will be covered, joining other organisations such as the BBC.

That brings me to my third general point. The Government had two possible ways of extricating themselves. They could try to define which organisations were covered and which were not. In Committee, the Opposition tabled an amendment to have some light shed on that. Alternatively, the Government could table a new clause that sought to govern the operation of the legislation--which is what the Home Secretary has done today. I welcome that. The new clause tabled by the Home Secretary is important and takes us forward in the debate.

Government new clause 13 emphasises the importance of the convention right to freedom of expression. That was also the purpose of our new clause 7, so we welcome the Government's proposal. It is right that we should preserve the present position and guard the freedom of speech and freedom to report. It should be stressed that the new clause does not apply just to the press. We tend to conduct the debate as if only newspapers were affected, but it applies also to broadcasting organisations--television and radio.

Mr. Garnier: Should we not also bear in mind the fact that the debate also applies to ordinary members of the public, who have the right to express themselves?

5 pm

Sir Norman Fowler: Indeed; the debate goes very wide. It has tended to concentrate exclusively on the press. I am delighted that everyone thinks so highly of newspapers, but it should be recognised that other forms of media also report, expose and reveal. If we had named the Press Complaints Commission as an exempt body, that might have helped the press, but it would have done

2 Jul 1998 : Column 546

nothing for television or radio reporting. However, the Government and the PCC, which provided help, have found a useful way through.

The Government's new clause requires courts, when judging what is justifiable or unjustifiable, to take account of any relevant privacy code. I hope that the Home Secretary will confirm my understanding that although broadcasting and the press will be covered, they will not necessarily be covered by exactly the same rules, for the good reason that the privacy code operated by the Press Complaints Commission can be different in some respects from the code operating in broadcasting.

Perhaps that difference is more apparent than real. The PCC states:

The public interest is the exception, and includes

    "detecting or exposing crime . . . protecting public health and safety."

Many of those conditions are repeated in the Broadcasting Standards Commission's code, which states:

    "An infringement of privacy has to be justified by an overriding public interest in disclosure of the information."

It also mentions detecting crime, disreputable behaviour, protecting public health or safety, and so on.

I welcome the Government's proposal to tighten the law on interim injunctions. It cannot be right in principle, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) pointed out, that a system can be used to prevent the truth from being told--I fear that that is sometimes intended--provided that a person is wealthy enough and legally well advised. I shall leave it to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough to elaborate.

Other questions need to be asked. Our new clause 1, which we shall not press, was designed to allow us to examine the possibility that a law of privacy will be developed by the courts in any event. I should prefer any such attempt to be straightforward and open. The Government do not favour a law of privacy. How will they respond if one is developed for them by the courts? It is predicted by none other than the Lord Chancellor that that will happen.

Another question arises from an interview given by the Lord Chancellor to the New Statesman in February. He advocated that the Press Complaints Commission should develop a mechanism for prior restraint--in other words, that the PCC should order a paper not to publish under certain circumstances. It is certainly not a power which the PCC wants; I could put that much more strongly. Will the Home Secretary take the opportunity to say that that is no part of the Government's plans?

Assuming that the Home Secretary can satisfy us on that, I am content with his new clause, which meets the concerns that we have expressed and were eloquently expressed in the other place. I share the right hon. Gentleman's belief in the system of self-regulation--for example, the Press Complaints Commission. We underestimate the effect that such a system, and the prospect of an investigation, has on the working journalist. That was true when I was a working journalist years ago, in the days of the Press Council, and it is true today.

2 Jul 1998 : Column 547

It must always be remembered that the task of a newspaper is to reveal and expose. At the best, it exposes criminals and fraudsters. At the worst, it can reveal issues that seem to have no true public interest. Making a judgment against publication and about what is or is not in the wider public interest is full of peril.

In conclusion, I shall tell a story entirely against myself. In 1966, when I was a journalist, I was writing a series of articles on prisons for The Times. I visited Dartmoor prison, where there was nothing for me to do at lunchtime, so I went out on to the moors and ate my sandwich in one of the fields there. My attention was taken by a man working alone in a field near my parked car. He was a giant of a man. When I returned to the prison, I mentioned my lunchtime companion. There were knowing looks, and finally one of the senior staff said, "For goodness' sake don't report that. That's Frank Mitchell, the mad axeman. He has been in prison half his life, and we think we are getting him to the point when he can be released."

Mitchell had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1958 for robbery with violence. He was only 29, and he had been under some form of restriction since the age of nine. I had a choice. I could have reported the story, and I guarantee that the rest of Fleet street would have followed it, or I could have taken the advice of the prison staff who knew Mitchell best, and whose view was that it would have done infinite harm to his rehabilitation for that to be reported. I chose not to report that story.

Ten weeks later, in December 1966, Mitchell escaped or, more accurately, was taken by several others. He was never seen again. Three years later, the Kray twins and several others stood accused of his murder. They were found not guilty, but one person was found guilty of helping the escape. The theory was that when the hue and cry got too hot, the man was killed. There is no question but that Frank Mitchell was killed and has never been seen since.

The totally detached journalist would have written the story and not concerned himself with the consequences. As it turned out, that would have been very much in the interests of the unfortunate Mr. Frank Mitchell. My conclusion is that function of the press is to report, to reveal and to expose. We will get into all kinds of difficulties if we interfere with the freedom to report. With that in mind, I welcome the Government's proposal. I shall certainly support the new clause.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): I shall be brief. I am very interested in the proposed new clause 13, and I welcome it. The Home Secretary will know that we have worked long and hard to try to balance privacy with freedom of the press, and this is as good a chance of success as we are likely to get.

I welcome the Government's efforts, because we are beginning to piece together several laws that protect both freedom of the press and individuals' rights. The Data Protection Bill--which we shall consider later--protects the public by requiring accuracy in the press. Members of the public will have the right to view the files held on them by the press--which might result in some 650 Members of Parliament queueing outside editors' offices on the day that the legislation comes into force.

I do not share the Home Secretary's confidence that voluntary regulation will work--it has always seemed to me to be a triumph of hope over experience. However,

2 Jul 1998 : Column 548

as I should like it to work, I am more than willing to give it a shot. I am anxious about balancing articles 8 and 10 of the European Court and how they will deal with the ordinary cases that appear in the press. The Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), referred to such a case.

We often talk about privacy only in terms of how it relates to the late Princess Diana, a famous film star or a famous politician. The reality is that only a minority of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission deal with privacy. It is also important to appreciate that many of the most serious abuses involve ordinary people, not the rich and the powerful. I am fairly relaxed if a person in a powerful position who is used to dealing with the media gets a rough ride, not because that is necessarily just, but because it is difficult to intervene in such a case.

I shall describe several test cases. The first involves the helicopter winchman who, in January this year, rescued nine people from a sinking freighter off the Shetland Islands. Unfortunately, after he had landed the last sailor, he was swept to his death by a giant wave. That man's son was hounded by the press and surrounded by photographers, and he made a rather desperate plea to be allowed to grieve in peace. That is a classic case for enforcing article 8, which protects family rights, in order to allow the son to grieve properly.

The individual's rights must be balanced against press freedom, but I should have thought that a court would rule in favour of family rights in such a case. I ask the Minister not to reach a conclusion about that case, but to confirm whether I am correct in thinking that people who are the target of that sort of harassment and invasion of privacy would be able to go to a local court and invoke their right indirectly, through the human rights legislation--perhaps it may be necessary to provide legal aid in such cases--to stop that harassment and invasion of privacy during the grieving period prior to a funeral.

That first case is about expense and access to the courts by an individual who is caught up in tragic circumstances. The most typical cases of that type involve people who have been recently bereaved in rather dramatic circumstances and who are not public figures. They are the people about whom I am interested.

I have grouped together several other cases involving people who cannot act for themselves. On 5 May this year, the Daily Mirror published details of expenditure at a prison shop by a well-known notorious criminal, who is currently serving a sentence in Broadmoor secure hospital for a number of murders and is a recluse and a psychotic. The newspaper had obtained those details from another prisoner, which was, in itself, a questionable operation. Although the man did not spend very much money--he purchased bars of chocolate, toothpaste and things of that nature, which amounted to only a few pounds--the story concluded that, because the man was receiving benefit, like all patients in secure hospitals, all other benefits in his savings account should be taken from him and given to his victims.

Leaving aside the argument about whether we should put criminals in a particular category and not give them any benefits, the case involved a prisoner in a secure hospital, who was therefore a patient under the Mental Health Act 1983 and had a right to privacy. Who will intervene on a person's behalf and call into question the balance between articles 8 and 10 in such a case?

2 Jul 1998 : Column 549

Next Section

IndexHome Page