Previous SectionIndexHome Page

17 Mar 2003 : Column 735—continued

10.20 pm

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) for raising this important and topical subject. He spoke eloquently about two particular cases. It is not for me to offer judgment in individual cases. I have great sympathy for members of the public who find themselves suddenly thrust into the public eye. That can be a harrowing experience, particularly as that exposure often comes at a time when they are particularly sensitive or vulnerable, but I know that my hon. Friend agrees that we need to have a sense of perspective when considering these issues.

Every week, some 162 million newspapers are sold in this country. This is a hugely successful industry that reflects, and has an impact on, every aspect of our lives. We cannot, and do not, expect to like or agree with everything that is printed. Governments, in particular, would occasionally like the media to agree with them, and to appear to understand them. I have reason to know that that is not often the case. But, although this is sometimes a cause for frustration, I am, on the whole, glad of it. We have a vibrant and irreverent press that is undoubtedly free, and we know that this country would be a far poorer place without it.

17 Mar 2003 : Column 736

That certainly does not make our press perfect, but, considering the vast number of publications, copies distributed, and articles that they contain, the number of complaints and concerns is actually very small. All can be considered against the newspaper industry's own code of practice, which is overseen by the Press Complaints Commission. The code is voluntary, but practically every publication in the country signs up to it, although a few small, independent newspapers do not. It contains 16 clauses covering, among other things, accuracy, privacy, harassment, intrusion into grief or shock, and children. Some of those clauses contain exclusions that apply if publication can be demonstrated to be in the public interest. The public interest is not an easily defined commodity, and lawyers, journalists and politicians debate it every day. It can include the detection or exposure of a crime, the protection of public health and safety, and the prevention of the public from being misled. It is not defined as whatever the public are interested in, or whatever they might find amusing, titillating, or frankly outrageous.

Last year, 2,630 people complained to the PCC about items in newspapers and magazines. About one third of all complaints were outside the remit of the PCC, covering legal issues or issues of taste and decency, or were from people not directly concerned. The commission is not in the game of offering legal advice; nor is it a censorship body in any shape or form. As a rule, the commission considers complaints only from people who are directly involved, although, in exceptional circumstances, it will act of its own volition, often provoked by letters from members of the public.

Of the properly constituted complaints, most were about inaccuracy, while about a quarter were about some aspect of privacy. After investigation, no breach was found in 26 per cent. of cases, and in most other cases, the PCC helped the complainant and the newspaper to reach a satisfactory agreement, such as the publication of a letter setting the record straight, or of an apology. In only 36 cases was a full adjudication needed; 17 cases were upheld and 19 rejected.

In addition, newspapers are bound by the general law that binds us all, but the code goes further than the law in many respects. For instance, the use of listening devices is not illegal, but the code bans it for journalists hoping to obtain information. As the code is voluntary rather than statutory, it has built-in flexibility to respond to new challenges where necessary, and there have been changes since it was established in 1991. They include prohibitions on some uses to which telephoto lenses are put. We have to accept, however, that no matter how well intentioned and how well thought through the code is, it does not cover every eventuality.

Any code or law is always open to some interpretation, so there is often still a debate to be had. One area that still attracts debate is the handling of cases involving children. All areas of the code cover children, so they have the same protection as adults from misleading or inaccurate reporting, intrusions into their privacy and so on, but sections of the code are specifically devoted to the coverage of stories involving children.

There are additional restrictions on what a newspaper may print about a child, and the tenets are these: young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion; journalists must not

17 Mar 2003 : Column 737

interview or photograph a child on subjects involving the welfare of the child, or of any other child, without the consent of a parent or guardian; pupils must not be approached or photographed while at school unless the school authorities have given permission; there must be no payment to children or parents for stories involving the welfare of the child unless it is demonstrably in the child's interest; and where material about a child is published, there must be justification for publication other than the fame or notoriety of his or her parents.

Ian Lucas: One area that I am concerned about is that it appears in certain cases that parents perhaps do not act in the best interests of the child. That could be the cause of grave anxiety. I was concerned to learn that the PCC would not countenance a complaint, even from a Member of Parliament, when the parents did not agree to it. Could that be looked at?

Dr. Howells: I intend to come to that in a few moments, if my hon. Friend will bear with me, because it is an important point that needs careful deliberation.

In cases concerning sexual offences, the PCC rules are even tougher. Even where the law does not prohibit it, the press must not identify children involved in a sexual offence, whether as victims or as witnesses. My hon. Friend has raised that issue, inside and outside the Chamber. An adult may be identified, but the word "incest" must not be used if that could lead to identification of a witness or a victim, and care must be taken to ensure that the relationship between an accused and a child could not be inferred from anything in the report.

That all sounds very clear and straightforward, but there are always "what ifs". My hon. Friend has just raised one. What if the child is the victim of a sexual offence, but does not consider himself or herself to be one? What if a child and his or her family willingly talk about the story? What if a child goes missing and the family eagerly recruit the press to maximise public awareness, but it then turns out that he or she has been the victim of a sexual offence?

We have seen examples of all those recently, and my hon. Friend has spoken to us this evening about two such cases. One shows several of those elements. It seems that the girl at the centre of the case and her parents chose to speak out, which is the point that he just raised. They have the right to do so. At that point,

17 Mar 2003 : Column 738

there was no suggestion that she was the victim of any offence. The details were widely published, and it is possible that they may have helped the police to find the girl and reunite her with her family. I do not know; my hon. Friend will know more about that. At that stage, there were again comments to media organisations, and again, the family had the right to make such comments.

Although so many details are already in the public domain—they cannot, of course, be retracted—there is still protection under the terms of the code. If the girl in that case, and her parents or guardians, now wish to remain silent, even though they have spoken to the press before, they have the right to do so, and they will have the protection of the code. Furthermore, if they believe that there was a breach of the code, they should contact the PCC immediately. As my hon. Friend has had experience of dealing with the PCC, I am certain that he will assist the family in their endeavours.

Those facts, without speaking particularly about that case, highlight certain moral issues. Decisions about whether a child should speak to the press are, in effect, made by parents or guardians on their behalf. Sometimes there are doubts about whether allowing a child to speak to the press really could be said to be in that child's best interests. We may believe that in certain cases it is not, but that is a matter of opinion, and as long as parents behave within the law, it is a matter for their judgment. We may not agree with their decision but, in principle, I believe that we must support their right to make decisions for their children.

Sadly, there are times when parents make very wrong, or even—as my hon. Friend has pointed out—harmful decisions for their children, and that is when social services might become involved. However, unless that is the case, parents have the right to speak to the press about their child as they see fit. We have no right to complain about their comments, and must keep our disapproval to ourselves.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that we at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have listened to what he said and that we are extremely sensitive to the important issue that he raised. I thank him once again for giving the House the opportunity to hear his analysis of a difficult but important subject.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page