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 bearwhich 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
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 evidencewhile 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 haveor
does not choose to haveupon 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.