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Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley). Following on from what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, I am quite happy to be counted as a supporter of the Bill. I may not be named on the back of it but I am happy to say that the Liberal Democrats support it. It is a modest measure but it is long overdue. In the same way that we have a free press, we should have a right of reply that is part of legislation. Everyone, including the humblest of citizens—not just the rich and famous, who are able to take journalists, newspapers and the media to task because they can afford it—should have that right of reply.

If this were in any way a measure to stifle the freedom of the press and its freedom of speech, obviously, I would oppose it. But it is clear that the Bill is trying to give back to citizens something that should be rightfully theirs.

In our democracy, it is essential that we have a free press that can unearth the facts and wrongdoing and can provide important scrutiny of the Government of the day, as well as of large corporations and organisations. But, as the hon. Gentleman said, the press must abide by the highest professional standards. The vast majority do, and the broadsheets—some are now compact editions—such as The Times, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian have exceptionally
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high standards of journalism. Likewise the BBC, Sky, CNN and many more organisations do us a great favour in providing quality news coverage for the British people.

However, there have been enormous abuses and I for one have been at the receiving end of them; I declare an interest. If the Government support the Bill, what will they do about further abuses that cannot be prevented by this specific and narrowly focused Bill? For instance, when journalists impersonate police officers and attempt illicitly to find information, as I came across, or if they take photographs of someone's children—

Mr. Randall : Presumably impersonating a police officer is an offence. Did not the hon. Gentleman report it to the police?

Mr. Marsden: The News of the World employed a gentleman to impersonate a police officer. He gave a false name, and I reported that to the police who said that in the circumstances they could not prove the case. They added that impersonating a police officer was "a grey area." I thought that was appalling. The journalist was trying to find out personal information about myself which he wanted to use to ascertain where I was, causing an enormous security scare. That is the sort of level they will go down to—in the gutter—to try to smear people.

The Bill is a modest measure, proposing that when the press does such things and misreports the facts, people should have a right to reply. It is time to end the abuses, and I hope that the Government will not only support the Bill, but look at other ways of tackling the abuses committed by this tiny minority of journalists. The PCC is a pretty toothless being, which, while well meaning, does not do what it should be doing. Obviously the Liberal Democrats will support the Bill.

2.2 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on giving us the opportunity to discuss this matter. We have heard that it is a modest measure. If this Bill is modest, thank goodness it is only one measure. I am afraid that the Conservative party does not think this Bill necessary or desirable. In fact, it is a rather lengthy Bill, which will be a gift to lawyers.

The Bill would replace the Press Complaints Commission, which has been successful as a mediation service, with a rather complicated adversarial one to address a non-existent problem. The Conservative party supports the right of the press to regulate itself, which is a crucial part of our press freedom. Too many of our freedoms seem to be disappearing under this authoritarian Labour regime, which we hope will not continue to run for more than a few more weeks.

2.4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Derek Twigg): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on his presentation of the Bill.

The Government strongly believe that a press that is free from state intervention is fundamental to our democracy. The history of a free press in this country
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dates back to 1695, when Parliament decided against renewing the Press Licencing Act 1662, which, earlier in the century, had suppressed all newspapers except official publications. We believe that no laws should specifically restrict press freedom. The Government should not intervene in any way in what a newspaper or magazine chooses to publish. We support self-regulation and the basis of the Government's relationship with the independent Press Complaints Commission is support for effective self-regulation. Newspapers may not publish whatever they like, but must abide by the law, as we all must, and that includes laws covering defamatory material.

We acknowledge that with freedom comes responsibility. In recognition of their responsibilities, newspapers chose to restrict their historic right of free speech, which is now guaranteed by the Human Rights Act 1998, by signing up to the voluntary code of practice, which is overseen by the PCC. The newspaper industry recognises that society has expectations of it that it does not place on individuals. Those expectations go beyond the industry's legal duties, which is why they must establish a code of practice. Consequently, newspapers already work under tighter restrictions that the rest of us.

What is the extent of the problem? It is important to note the context of this debate. Every week, the nation reads 162 million copies of newspapers. In 2003, the last year for which full statistics are available, a record number of 3,649 complaints were made to the PCC. That represents a rise of 39 per cent. from the previous year, but a large number of them were about matters for which the commission had no remit—for example, advertising standards, taste and decency. When those letters were sifted out, the actual increase was a more conservative 7 per cent. and 56 per cent. of complaints concerned accuracy. I do not want to diminish the importance of those complaints, but we must keep a sense of perspective. Bearing in mind the vast number of publications, the number of copies distributed and the articles that they contain, the number of complaints is relatively small.

In addition, the PCC continues to monitor customer satisfaction by asking all complainants whether they were satisfied with the way in which their complaint was handled. For example, in 2003 the PCC surveyed 800 people who had used its services and received 414 replies. Of those, 62 per cent. said that their complaint had been handled satisfactorily or very satisfactorily. That included cases in which the commission found no breach of the code and in which one might expect some hostility to the PCC.

The MediaWise figures quoted in support of the Bill suggest that 64 per cent. of people surveyed were unhappy with the PCC's performance. However, I gather that of the 230 questionnaires sent out by MediaWise, only 107 went to people who had used the PCC. Only 52 usable replies were received, and of those only 35 had made complaints within the PCC's remit. It is clear that the statistic of 64 per cent. is based on a very small, and not necessarily representative, sample.

It is important to have accuracy and I am not suggesting that everything in the garden is rosy. There is no room for complacency and I have great sympathy for those who suddenly find themselves in the media
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spotlight, particularly if that is not their choice, and it must be particularly difficult if they feel that information is inaccurate, or even defamatory.

It is right that, in support of the PCC code, we remind the industry from time to time that accuracy is of the utmost importance to its standing among the public. The importance that the PCC accords to accuracy is reflected in the fact that the need for accuracy is enshrined in the first clause of the code.

That is the background against which we considered the Bill. As I said, we cannot countenance any restriction of the freedom of the press. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and others have argued that the proposed new board would not interfere with the principle of press freedom. However, I disagree, not least because, under paragraph 2 of schedule 1 of the Bill, the members of the board would be appointed by the Government. Is it right, as a matter of principle, that a board comprising Government appointees should be able to decide appeals made against the actions of the press? I do not think so.

Peter Bradley: Can my hon. Friend name a handful of boards of national quangos that are not appointed by the Government? Is that not the accepted principle? If he is suggesting that the integrity and independence of the board would be doubted, the conclusion is that one should doubt the independence and integrity of members of other boards.

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