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Clause 24 would place a duty on the board to prepare and issue codes of practice to editors and others responsible for editorial material. Although the Bill specifies that those codes should address matters relating to the right of reply in particular, the board would not be constrained from addressing any other issues. That could lead to great confusion. Which codes of practice should editors followthose issued by the board or by the PCC? The Bill also states that such codes of practice would have to be subject to consultation with the Secretary of State. The prospect is of a board appointed by the Secretary of State, with a duty to issue codes of practice regulating the press's behaviour, the contents of which would have to be the subject of consultation with the Secretary of State. However, we are told by my hon. Friend that the Bill would not constitute interference with a free press.
Peter Bradley: We now have a panoply of safeguards, such as the appointments commissioner and the Nolan principles. I am concerned that my hon. Friend should suggest that because the Secretary of State would appoint the members of the board, they would not be seen to be independent. However, my hon. Friend would not make the same judgment on hundreds of other national, regional and local boards that are also directly or indirectly appointed by the Secretary of State.
The Bill calls for the creation of a new, publicly funded quango. Given the duties included in the Bill, a significant sum would be needed each year for its running costs, let alone the funding of reviews, the collection and maintenance of databases and the research that would be necessary. However, the Bill does not say to what purpose the research would be put. The industry is hugely successful and profitable, so can it be right to ask the taxpayer to fund a body to consider complaints when an industry-funded, independent body already exists for that purpose? That is especially pertinent given that the figures I have cited show that most people are happy with the present arrangements.
Peter Bradley: We are all familiar with the present concerns about Sudan 1. Does my hon. Friend think that the Food Standards Agency should be funded by the food industry alone, or is it properly funded by the public purse to ensure that the public can have confidence in it?
A survey of 2,058 adults conducted by MORI in 2002 found that 64 per cent. of those interviewed believed that the industry should continue to fund the regulatory body, and only 12 per cent. thought that the cost should be met by the taxpayer. Moreover, the proposals in the Bill are more complex than the present system and would be less equitable to complainants. For example, complaints would have to be made within 14 days of publication. The present arrangements allow a month, but a significant number of people do not manage to meet that deadline. It is likely that more would be excluded by a shorter deadline. The Bill would require publications to respond within three days, but that allows inadequate time for investigation should any dispute be involved. Another layer of bureaucracy would be imposed in front of the adjudicator who would determine whether a right of reply should be granted.
If either the publication or the complainant disagreed with the adjudicator's decision, they could appeal to the board, but as the board would be responsible for the appointment of the adjudicator, its ability to hear appeals independently would be in doubt.
Derek Twigg: I suggest to my hon. Friend that there is a particular issue about press freedom and the way in which we monitor and manage it, and use the code of practice. That is why this issue is different and I shall continue to explain that as I proceed with my speech.
The fact is that, in the Government's view, the PCC's code of practice already provides a satisfactory means of redress for those who feel they have been misrepresented in the press. Clause 1 of the code requires that
A failure to do that would be a breach of the code. The PCC already fulfils the role of an adjudicator. Its independence is guaranteed by a lay majority of 10 to
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seven, its chairman is independent of the industry, and its staff have no connection to the industry. When the code has been breached and no satisfactory remedial action offered, the PCC will require a newspaper to publish, in full and with due prominence, a critical adjudication of the editor. That does not require a lengthy and costly legal battle.
It is significant that no editor has ever refused to publish the PCC adjudication and adherence to the PCC code is written into many editors' contracts. Furthermore, the complainants have the right to appeal on procedural grounds to an independent chartered commissioner, who can ask for the matter to be reconsidered.
As far as the maintenance of a database is concerned, the PCC currently publishes details of all its adjudications on its website, and it contains summaries of all resolved complaints, including details offered by the newspaper in each case. The PCC also publishes an annual report that provides an analysis of its work over the preceding year, as well as a bi-annual report providing a summary of its cases.
To conclude, I am afraid that the Bill would establish statutory regulation by the back door and I suspect that, once a board was established, there would inevitably be calls to extend the scope of its remit. After all, the need for accuracy is only one part of a larger range of issues considered by the PCC, and there will be others who argue with a passion equal to that of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and his supporters, that their particular concern can be addressed only through statutory means. Once we have breached the principle of press freedomlet us be clear about thiswe will find ourselves on a very slippery slope.
Mr. Paul Marsden:
We do not currently allow an unfettered right for the press to write whatever they want. Law and regulation is already in place, so the idea that this is the first time since the 17th century that our precious freedom of speech has been compromised is utter rubbishand the Minister knows it. He is squirming around, trying to find tentative reasons to justify his position. For goodness' sake, why cannot he actually answer the specific questions put to him by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) about the appointment and running of the board? Can we have a little more openness and honesty from this Minister?
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Derek Twigg: I have already made it clear to the hon. Gentleman that there is a fundamental disagreement here over the regulation of the press and press freedom. I have set out my and the Government's position on the issue. There will be disagreements, but we believe that the current procedure and regulations in placeI am sure that things can always be improvedprovide the best way forward.
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