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8 May 2006 : Column 144

The House will know that I have spent much of the past three years successfully dealing with false and defamatory allegations published about me in a variety of American and British newspapers. These newspapers have now had to pay out some £2 million in damages and costs to me and my lawyers as a result of those libels. That a crime was committed against me in Baghdad by forgers constructing fake incriminating materials cannot be gainsaid. The Christian Science Monitor published on its front page a story that I had received more than $10 million in regular payments from a son of Saddam Hussein whom I never met, beginning a year before I had ever visited Iraq, and ending some months after I left Iraq for the last time. Those documents, which contained forgeries of my signature and elaborate attempts at a chronology matching my actual visits to Iraq, were brought by The Christian Science Monitor from an Iraqi general whom it named and photographed within days of the fall of Baghdad to the invading forces.

After I began legal proceedings against The Christian Science Monitor, and after The Mail on Sunday had bought another set of documents from the same Iraqi general, purporting to show my receipt of a different $10 million from a different son of Saddam Hussein, The Christian Science Monitor sent its documents to leading American universities for forensic examination. It was a precaution that it ought to have takenbefore publication, rather than afterward, because the documents were swiftly exposed as forgeries, as were the documents bought by The Mail on Sunday from the same source in the same week.

When both newspapers unmasked the forgeries they had bought, I called on our Government to cause our officials in Baghdad to visit that Iraqi general and ask him why he was circulating forged materials about a British Member of Parliament. There was only silence from the Government and the Iraqi general remains unvisited by any of our embassy personnel. You may wonder, Mr. Speaker, why the Government would not be keen to get to the bottom of such a conspiracy or perhaps, like me, you already know the reason why.

When the Telegraph Group cornered the market over several weeks in April and May 2003 in documents apparently exhumed from a burning building in Baghdad, many smelled a similar species of rat. Documents incriminating Russia and France and, more importantly, documents appearing to link the former Iraqi regime with Osama bin Laden personally were all scoops missed by every other media outlet, but not by The Daily Telegraph. In that burning building were allegedly found, of course, the documents about me for which it was condemned in the libel courts and caned by Mr. Justice Eady, who said that the paper had rushed to publish the documents, and had adopted them and editorialised upon them with relish.

I can reveal this evening for the first time that the Telegraph journalist, Mr. David Blair—an unfortunate coincidence of name—and at least one of his superiors in London lied in the High Court during my libel action. Their claim that Mr. Blair was not led to those documents but had merely chanced upon them while wandering around a looted and burning building, and that he had found all of the documents published by the Telegraph in the same place, at the same time and in the same box, is quite simply a lie.

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On 18 July 2003 a very senior British journalist, a foreign correspondent on a national daily, with impeccable credentials and with no conceivable reason to lie, visited me in the House of Commons in my office in Portcullis House. He had been seeking that meeting with me for several weeks. What he told me is perhaps best described by a paraphrasing of the email I sent my lawyer at exactly 13.41 that day, just minutes after that senior British journalist left my office. I told my lawyer that on the weekend David Blair found the documents he was supposed to travel with my contact to the south of Iraq, but pulled out at the hotel door at the last minute and without explanation. He had a conversation with my contact on the day the first Telegraph story was published. He insisted that he had found the documents, though he said that he was uneasy about their veracity. My contact says that Blair was very anxious and nervous about the scale of the treatment of the story by The Daily Telegraph and its clear assumption of guilt.

On the day of the follow-up piece, Mr. Blair and my contact spoke again. This time, Mr. Blair confessed that the second set of documents, published by the Telegraph had in fact been given to him and that he had not, as he had claimed, found them. He said to my contact that he was not able to say who gave them to him. He said that he had been told by London to continue to insist that he found those documents, and that my contact must never divulge the true story.

After they both left Iraq, David Blair telephoned my contact to ask if anyone else knew about the true provenance of the documents. Well now we all know.

My contact told me further that Philip Sherwell of The Sunday Telegraph said that he had himself trawled the same room in the same building and that everything was fire or sprinkler-damaged beyond repair. On Sherwell’s prior visit, the box Blair later claimed to have found was not there.

Of course, the fact that the second set of Telegraph documents was not found, as the paper falsely claimed, but was given to Mr. Blair by somebody does not necessarily mean that the first set of documents was not found in the building. But the fact that the paper lied under oath about the provenance of the second set of documents must reasonably suggest either that both sets of documents were given to the Telegraph’s reporter or, at the very least, that the Telegraph was led to the first by the person or persons who provided the second. I am not unmindful of the gravity of what I am saying, Mr. Speaker. If my foreign correspondent visitor is right, a criminal conspiracy was hatched and executed between Baghdad and London against me.

The Telegraph’s then proprietor was, of course, a foreign billionaire, Lord Conrad Black. The noble lord was nothing if not ideologically engaged. According to Philippe Sands QC in his recent book, “Lawless World”, the British Prime Minister told the American Government of George W. Bush that Black was very helpfully using the influence of his papers to make the case for the war. Mazher Mahmood’s employer, too, is a foreign billionaire, although unlike Lord Black there is no evidence that he is also a thief, but that must pose the question of how content we are to allow that massive concentration of media ownership in the hands of foreign billionaires with an ideological crusade in their hearts and an axe to grind.

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The Government’s attitude has been one of collusion with—some would say obeisance to—those foreign owners. The Government no doubt hoped that that would ensure them a different fate to that suffered by previous Labour Administrations at the hands of the newspaper barons. If so, they must know differently now.

What is to be done? Should we allow 40 per cent. of newspaper circulation in Britain to be in Rupert Murdoch’s grubby hands—from the streetwalkers of the News of the World to the higher class of courtesan at The Times? Will we allow our local press to be subject, as it is through takeover, to increasing monopolisation?

For almost 20 years in the House I have opposed state regulation of the press, and I oppose it still. I believe that freedom and democracy in this country would lose more than they would gain from such regulation, but part of the answer to those questions lies in the Government’s hands: first, through modifying their relations with those media magnates and, secondly, through caps on media ownership, especially ownership by foreign billionaires whose loyalty is certainly not to this country.

10.58 pm

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) on securing the debate. He has risen to the usual expectations. This is not the first time that we have debated press regulation and I am sure that it will not be the last.

I want to start by registering the fact that the Government strongly support self-regulation of the press. Indeed, I think that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that, too. We believe that a press free from state intervention is fundamental to democracy. The history of a free press in this country dates back to 1695 when Parliament decided against renewing the Act that, earlier in the century, had suppressed all newspapers except official publications. These days, we cannot, and indeed do not, expect to like or agree with everything that is printed.

We in government would occasionally—as the hon. Gentleman was saying—like the media to appear to understand us and, indeed, sometimes even probably agree with us. However, we believe that the Government should not seek to intervene in any way in what a newspaper or magazine chooses to publish. We therefore support self-regulation, and the basis for the Government’s relationship with the independent Press Complaints Commission is support for effective self-regulation.

Newspapers may not publish just what they like. Indeed, like all of us, they must abide by the law. That includes, for example, the laws on defamatory material. We acknowledge that with freedom comes responsibility, and in recognition of their responsibilities, newspapers choose to restrict their historic right to free speech—now guaranteed by the Human Rights Act 1998—by signing up to the voluntary code of practice overseen by the PCC. In fact, consequently, newspapers already work under tighter regulations than the rest of us.

It is important to put in context what the hon. Gentleman has been saying and to note the context in which the debate takes place. There are 107 daily and 501 weekly newspapers and 8,330 magazines. Every week, as a nation, we get through more than 150 million
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newspapers. Against that background, the PCC received 3,654 complaints in 2005—very similar to the numbers received in the previous two years, which were 3,618 in 2004 and 3,649 the year before.

The simple rehearsal of the total number of complaints inevitably conceals a more complex picture. The PCC receives many complaints that do not fall within its remit— relating, for example, to advertising, legal matters or issues of taste and decency—or that represent general concerns on the part of complainants that do not fall within the terms of the code. In those cases, the PCC seeks to assist complainants as best it can, by referring them to other relevant bodies, or passing on their views to the editor concerned.

In all, the commission had to make 900 rulings under the code in 2004, which represented a drop of about 14 per cent. from 2003. The complaints that raised a possible breach of the code also fell by 7 per cent. Therefore, despite overall complaint levels remaining the same, there appears to have been a noticeable drop in substantive concerns about the newspaper and magazine industry.

One area of particular concern to the hon. Gentleman is misrepresentation, which he outlined this evening. The code contains a clause on the use of clandestine devices and subterfuge, and it is worth rehearsing its contents:

However, that clause has a public interest exemption, meaning that clandestine devices or subterfuge can be permissible if editors demonstrate that their use is in the public interest. The public interest is defined by the PCC as

We believe that the important point is that, if a journalist obtains a story or information by misrepresentation or subterfuge and an editor uses that story, he must satisfy himself that it is in the public interest, as he will be only too aware that he is likely to have to demonstrate that to the PCC or risk public censure.

Investigative journalists have, in that way, uncovered a great deal of crime and impropriety, but I certainly understand the anger and concern of those who find themselves on the receiving end of that sort of behaviour and who committed no crime or impropriety. However, that is part of the price that we pay for our independent press. I should also point out that complaints about the use of clandestine devices and subterfuge made up only 0.6 per cent. of complaints to the PCC last year—just over 20 cases. So, it is fair to say that the problem is not widespread. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman referred his complaint to the PCC.

Mr. Galloway: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, the last of the Mohicans on the Labour Front Bench, for giving way. The reality is that the reason so few
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people complain to the PCC is that it is not worth a pot of warm water. It has absolutely no effect on the gutter press of Rupert Murdoch and the News of the World. They laugh at it. That is why I did not take my complaint to the PCC. I preferred to bring it to my right hon. Friend’s attention in the hope that he might do something more about it than he seems to be suggesting.

Mr. Caborn: As my hon. Friend said a little earlier to the House, he has been successful in his prosecutions, because he is now £2 million better off. It looks as though the recourse that he has taken, either through the PCC or the courts, has been quite successful. By his own admission, he has been quite successful in bringing those concerned to book in one form or another, through the courts of the land or the PCC. He has informed the House that he and his lawyers have received about£2 million in the recent past. By that token, there has been some success in addressing that complaint.

Mr. Galloway: I had to risk absolute and total ruinto do so. I would either have been £2 million up or£2 million down. Most people cannot risk doing that and do not have families that permit them to do that. That is why we need something a bit stronger than what my right hon. Friend has to say this evening.

Mr. Caborn: My hon. Friend is not what I would call “the normal family”. He is slightly different and slightly more of a personality. Just occasionally, he attracts a little interest from the press—I do not know whether he goes out to do so, but he might from time to time. It is stretching the imagination just a little to say that he is one of the ordinary citizens of this country. By his own admission, at least he has been able to use the courts of this land to bring his case, which has been found in his favour.

I do not wish to diminish the importance of such complaints, but it is important that we keep a sense of perspective. Considering the vast number of publications, the articles that they contain and the copies distributed, the number of complaints about any clause in the PCC’s code is very small, and this area is one of the smallest. Complaints about accuracy continue to provide the commission with the bulk of its work—more than50 per cent. of the letters that it receives are about accuracy.

The PCC continues to monitor customer satisfaction by asking all complainants for their views on whether they are satisfied with how their complaints were handled. In 2004, 305 complainants returned the anonymous feedback form. The results were as follows: 94 per cent. of people whose complaints were either upheld or resolved were satisfied or very satisfied with the way in which their case had been handled; 79 per cent. of respondents considered the time taken to deal with their complaint had been about right; 94 per cent. of the complainants found the commission’s literature to be clear or very clear; 87 per cent. found the PCC staff to be helpful or very helpful; and 60 per cent. overall concluded that their complaints had been handled satisfactorily or very satisfactorily. That was in line with the previous years and included those cases where the commission found no breach of the code and one might expect some hostility to the PCC.

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I am not suggesting that there is no room for improvement, because there certainly is and neither do I believe that there is any room for complacency. I have great sympathy for those who suddenly find themselves thrust into the media spotlight, particularly if it is not their choice. I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He has the opportunity to come here tonight and present his case. There are members of the general public who, when they find themselves in such circumstances, have great difficulty in finding a platform from which to raise such matters.

I do not accept wholly what the hon. Gentleman says about the PCC. As I tried to indicate, those who have
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used it find that the organisation is reasonably satisfactory in dealing with their complaints. However, as I said, the matter needs to be kept under review and vigilance is important. I believe that what we have in place to protect the freedom of the press on the one hand—I think that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that—and to give recourse when there has been transgression from the code is about right. However, that is not to say that we do not keep the situation under constant review—we do. I hope that that is satisfactory to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Eleven o’clock.

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