Select Committee on Communications First Report


CHAPTER 8: THE MEDIA AND PARLIAMENT

359.  We started this report by underlining the fundamental importance of a free media in democracy. The freedom of the press under the law extends to the freedom of other media to report the news without censorship or interference. Government and Parliament may seek to influence the way that the news is presented and views expressed but they have absolutely no right to control. Any attempt to do that should be fiercely resisted. But does the freedom of the media mean that they should not be subject to questioning?

360.  The media cannot expect that alone among British institutions they will be exempt from serious examination. They claim (rightly) that they have the right to expose and reveal. Therefore it would be the height of hypocrisy if owners and editors refused to answer questions about their policies and activities. Such questioning is also necessary in a democracy. It is the quid pro quo for freedom of the Press. The public have a perfect right to know, for example, who controls the media and what influence the owners bring to bear—which has been one of the main themes of our inquiry.

361.  In reviewing the relationship between the media and Parliament there is a clear difference between the public service broadcasters, who receive public subsidy, and the press and new media who do not. We believe however, that although newspapers receive no public subsidy, there is a legitimate democratic expectation that they be open about how they approach their role.

362.  The BBC receives nearly three and a quarter billion pounds a year in licence fee income. As a result their work is guided according to a set of rules laid down in a Royal Charter. The Government consults with the public on the terms of the charter and the licence fee is subject to parliamentary approval. But in practice public and parliamentary involvement has always been limited. The terms of the Royal Charter are agreed exclusively by the Government and the BBC who may choose to ignore the views put forward in the public consultation. The charter itself is not subject to mandatory parliamentary approval (although there have by convention been votes in the House of Commons to either accept or reject the Agreement between the Government and the BBC which accompanies the Royal Charter). As for the licence fee this is put before Parliament but only in the most unsatisfactory form: it is not possible to amend it.

363.  We return to proposals we have made in our previous report when we argued that under the Royal Charter process the Government of the day has almost unchecked powers to change the entire constitution of the BBC. We believe that the public interest would be better served by placing the BBC on a statutory footing by an Act of Parliament. We also believe that Parliament should have a greater involvement in the setting of the licence fee.

364.  Some inside the BBC have opposed these proposals on the grounds that it is interfering with the corporation's independence. We do not believe that objection is valid. It would simply be substituting open and transparent parliamentary scrutiny and approval for what is now a deal done behind closed doors between the Government and the BBC. The BBC themselves might like to reflect whether their position is best maintained by such a system and whether Parliament might be an important check given the prospect of decisions in the future like the top-slicing of the licence fee.

365.  Having said that we have no complaint against either the BBC or the other public service broadcasters in their willingness to appear before this select committee. With the press, however, we had substantially more difficulty. Some chairmen and editors readily agreed to come to give evidence—while Rupert Murdoch and Sir Christopher Meyer, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, volunteered to see the committee. Others were markedly more reluctant.

366.  In one or two cases negotiations went on for several months before agreement was forthcoming and in one case we were met with outright refusal. In spite of four invitations between January and April to appear, Mr Aidan Barclay, the chairman of the Telegraph Media Group, continued to decline to appear before us.

367.  In summary Mr Barclay stated that he was chairman of a private company and has never spoken in public about the newspaper or media issues. He argued that he is not currently taking a role in policy debates about media ownership and that it is not in the Telegraph group's commercial interests to share his views or strategy with competitors. For these reasons he stated that it would be inappropriate for him to give oral evidence to the committee, although he did offer a private and off the record briefing. He added that the editor of The Daily Telegraph had already given evidence.

368.  We reject these arguments. It has never been our purpose to take commercially confidential evidence and there has been no complaint on this raised by any media company throughout our inquiry. We were grateful for the evidence of the editor of The Daily Telegraph but the editor is not the proprietor and cannot answer on questions of ownership. Off the record briefings are of no practical use to an inquiry like this as they cannot be quoted and by definition are not open to public scrutiny. The fact that Mr Barclay runs a private company is an argument why he should appear. He is one of the few private owners in the media industry and the influence that he chooses to have—or does not choose to have—upon the news that the Telegraph newspapers print is a matter of genuine public interest.

369.  Above all we do not believe that the proprietor of two important national newspapers can claim that he cannot be questioned by a parliamentary select committee. Newspapers themselves call for maximum openness and condemn secrecy and attempts at "cover ups". Yet here we have a newspaper proprietor seeking to hide behind a shield of privacy that his newspapers would not accept for a minute when dealing with other members of the public.

370.  But the case goes beyond one man. The owners of the media and the editors who work for them have immense power. The very least that the public can expect is that they should be questioned on how they exercise that power. The freedom of the media should be accompanied by the freedom of Parliament to question how that freedom is being exercised. There are some potentially major questions here. Foreign ownership provides particular problems: not all foreign owners may be as accommodating as Rupert Murdoch. It is all the more reason why the principle of attendance before parliamentary Select Committees should be established.

371.  Select Committees of the House of Lords have the power to send for persons and papers. However, only the House as a whole has the power, by order, to compel the attendance of witnesses. The same applies in the Commons, though in practice this power is rarely used in either House. The last time it was used in the Commons was in 1992, when it was ordered that Ian and Kevin Maxwell give evidence to the Social Security Committee inquiry into the Mirror Group pension funds. No House of Lords committee has attempted to compel the attendance of witnesses in modern times.

372.  This reluctance to compel attendance is not surprising. The procedure is laborious: it requires, first, a report from the committee recommending that a particular witness be ordered to attend. The report would then be debated on the floor of the House (the business managers making time available), and the order agreed. The final part of the process in the Lords would be for the Clerk of the Parliaments to sign the order, and for Black Rod to secure the serving of a summons on the witness.

373.  The procedure for compelling the attendance of witnesses before Committees of the House is palpably not fit for purpose at the beginning of the 21st century, and should now be reviewed. If parliamentary inquiries are to serve a useful function in guarding the public interest then a less cumbersome procedure is necessary. We therefore invite the Procedure Committee to consider the options for streamlining the procedure whereby select committees may compel the attendance of witnesses.


 
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