“I do not believe this in any way crosses a ‘red line’ for those of us who have serious qualms about a statutory regulator: the Press Council in the Republic of Ireland may be recognised in a statute, but it is not created by it.”

That, essentially, is the difference in this matter. It is a question of whether we trust the press to establish a truly independent body with real powers that will be able to punish breaches of the code, and that the press will abide by it, or whether we believe that the press will not go along with that, and that therefore there must be statutory support. It is not a question of powers; there is no difference between what is on the table in terms of the powers available to the body and what Leveson recommends. It is merely a question of whether we trust the body, and the press, to go along with it. If we do not, we support the idea of statutory regulation. However, we must be clear about the fact that starting to legislate over the press would be a huge step for us to take.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that protecting journalists’ sources is a fundamental principle of investigative journalism? Leveson seems to

3 Dec 2012 : Column 610

want to throw that out of the window if the information has been “stolen”. Does he realise that under such a system none of the expenses scandal involving the House of Commons would have emerged, and is that not very worrying indeed?

Mr Whittingdale: I agree. I think that there are serious practical problems with some of Lord Leveson’s recommendations, and the hon. Lady has highlighted one of them. The whole area of data protection raises some very big questions. There is also the question of whether Ofcom should have any involvement in press regulation. I think that Ofcom itself would have severe misgivings about that, because it is not what it was set up to do. It was set up to do an entirely different job. It is a Government-appointed regulatory body, and even if it acts as a backstop regulator, that will be giving a Government-appointed body, the chairman of which is appointed by the Secretary of State, a role in the regulation of the press.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Is it not more important for us to establish total public confidence, which has been shattered over many years? My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned the Hillsborough families, one of whom wrote to remind me of the 23 years that it took to deal with the injustices, which were caused in large part by newspaper reporting, not least by The Sun. Is it not important for us to do that, on behalf of the victims and the public at large?

Mr Whittingdale: Of course it is important for us to establish public confidence. What we need to do is persuade the public that things will never be the same again: that the new regime on offer is completely different, that it is independent, and that it has real powers. However, as I think Shami Chakrabarti said at the weekend, the question of whether it requires statutory underpinning is about processes, not outcomes. We need to focus on the outcomes of this.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): Is it not the case that the proposed legal and financial incentives to be offered to the press would require legislation by the House to give the press privileges that are not available to other citizens?

Mr Whittingdale: I think I have already dealt with that, but the right hon. Gentleman is right. Lord Hunt himself suggested that there should be some statutory recognition of the body in the context of, for instance, defamation cases, so that it can be taken into account when damages are awarded. However, that is not the same as setting up a body by statute, or statutory underpinning. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to laugh, but there is a massive difference between the law recognising the existence of a body and the law somehow having power over that body.

Sir Edward Garnier: Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) may have slightly misquoted Lord Justice Leveson—wholly unwittingly, I am sure? Lord Leveson identified the Daily Telegraph investigation of parliamentary expenses as an example of investigative journalism coming to the point, but surely the central fact is that there are aspects

3 Dec 2012 : Column 611

of privacy law that protect and enhance freedom of expression—for example, the right of journalists to protect their sources.

Mr Whittingdale: I have very little time left. I could probably spend another hour discussing the whole issue of privacy law, but I shall merely tell my hon. and learned Friend that I hear what he says.

I am absolutely at one with those in the Chamber who believe that we need to establish—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order.

Mr Whittingdale: — an independent regulatory body—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must not test the patience of the Chair. A great many other Members wish to speak.

4.44 pm

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): When Sir David Calcutt produced his second report in 1992, he was damning in his criticism of the lack of serious progress made by the Press Complaints Commission in the previous two years. We in Parliament as well as the press are now reaping the whirlwind of that collective failure. In the intervening years, the Conservatives and then Labour failed to grasp the nettle of press standards. As Lord Justice Leveson makes clear, standards have fallen, not risen, in many, although by no means all, sections of the press. What the McCanns, the Dowler parents, J. K. Rowling and thousands of others have been subjected to should never happen in a society that prides itself on its freedoms, for all these victims have been deprived of the most basic rights of family life and justice to which we are all entitled.

I say to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) that it is not the case that the problems we are dealing with are simply breaches of the criminal law which have not been investigated. Sir Brian Leveson states in his report:

“There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist.”

The Prime Minister established the Leveson inquiry at the behest of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition because he knew there had to be major changes to end the intrusion and abuse the PCC and the many previous attempts at self-regulation had failed to end. If the Prime Minister deserves credit for setting up Leveson—and indeed he does—he has, I am afraid, undermined that by his extraordinary and impetuous decision to rubbish, within 24 hours of receipt of the report, Leveson’s key recommendation that there must be some statutory underpinning of a much-enhanced system of independent self-regulation.

I am sure that the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon, has looked in detail at the fourth volume of the Leveson report, so he will have seen that what is proposed there by way of statutory underpinning includes providing

3 Dec 2012 : Column 612

incentives, such as in respect of costs, for the members of the press board—membership of which would be entirely voluntary.

Instead of a serious study of the Leveson report, the British press have produced some of the most extravagant comment I have witnessed from them. That includes Mr Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun, who claimed that Members of Parliament would risk

“looking like Putin or Beijing”

if we had a new press law.

We are all against any semblance of state control of the press. Sir Brian Leveson could not have been more emphatic about that. He says, in terms, that his proposed press board

“should not have the power to prevent publication of any material”

by the press. Instead he proposes a light-touch regulation system.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Mr Kavanagh might have had in mind the proposal on page 1780 of the report, which Sir Brian Leveson considers laudable and admirable:

“Interference with the activities of the media shall be lawful only insofar as it is for a legitimate purpose and is necessary in a democratic society, having full regard to the importance of media freedom in a democracy”.

One could imagine that being said in the Congress of China or Russia.

Mr Straw: I hope the hon. Lady makes better points than that if she is called to make a speech in this debate.

Turning to the objections that have been expressed about a light-touch regulatory system, I endorse the remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). First, there is the objection the Prime Minister uttered, which is that

“for the first time, we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 449.]

As I pointed out to the House last Thursday, and as my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out again today, the Prime Minister’s claim is simply incorrect. The Press Complaints Commission came to me when I was Home Secretary to ask for protection to be written into the Human Rights Act 1998, particularly in respect of the apparent ease with which it felt complainants could otherwise get interlocutory injunctions to stop publication of material, for example, where it was likely to intrude into the privacy of individuals. I listened to the PCC and there were negotiations, the result of which is to be found in section 12 of the 1998 Act, subsection (4) of which says that when the courts are deciding whether or not to grant an ex parte injunction, they take into account, among other things, “any relevant privacy code”—the PCC code. In other words, it was the press themselves who wanted statutory force—legal force—to be behind their code, because they wanted protection. That was the crossing of the Rubicon, not anything in Leveson.

The second issue concerns the Irish Defamation Act 2009, to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham made such important reference. The Prime Minister said that we should look at that Act, because it

3 Dec 2012 : Column 613

“runs to many, many pages, setting out many, many powers of the Irish Press Council.”

He added:

“It is worth Members of the House studying the Irish situation”—[Official Report, 29 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 456.]

I have taken the Prime Minister’s advice, but it is a great pity that he failed to study that Act rather more closely. As my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out, although it runs to 35 pages, the provisions relating to the Press Council consist of one section—section 44—one schedule, which is two and a half pages long, and linking provisions such as those linking back to section 27, which provides a public interest defence for media firms that have signed up to the Press Council and have adhered to its code. I hope that the Secretary of State, or whichever Minister responds to the debate, will answer the question that has been put time and again from the Labour Benches and, to a degree, from her own: if the Irish Defamation Act is good enough for the Irish press, and has worked for them and for the British media with titles in Ireland, why would such a short set of provisions not be good enough for this House and the British press?

Mr Whittingdale: Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that Lord Hunt asked for a similar provision to that in the Irish Defamation Act, and that that is not a problem? None of us objects to that; it is the statutory underpinning, which is a completely different prospect, that people find objectionable.

Mr Straw: The hon. Gentleman and I must be reading two different Acts, because section 44 of that Act contains statutory underpinning. It gives the Dail, the Irish Parliament, more direct power over the Press Council of Ireland than ever is proposed by Lord Justice Leveson for the press board in the United Kingdom.

Ian Paisley: In 2007, I was confronted by a journalist whose newspaper is subject to those regulations. I was handed my text messages and told that they were going to be printed. I threatened that Council on that journalist, and those texts never appeared—that Council does have teeth.

Mr Straw: It does indeed have teeth. I am afraid that the Secretary of State scored an own goal when she implied that because there had been no references made to the overseeing body it had somehow failed. If she read the Leveson report, she would have seen, on page 1715, that there have been

“between 340-350 complaints per year”

to the Irish press ombudsman, which was set up by this underpinning legislation. However, as people are satisfied with how this independent self-regulation, overseen by statute, works in Ireland, there have been no complaints to the higher body, and neither would there be here.

Extravagant complaints and comments have been made by journalists such as Mr Trevor Kavanagh, who is arguing with a report that does not exist, but quite a number of senior journalists have been altogether more thoughtful. Mr Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail told a seminar preceding the inquiry that

“there’s one area where Parliament can help the press. Some way must be found to compel all newspaper owners to fund and participate in self-regulation.”

3 Dec 2012 : Column 614

Compulsion is the newspapers’ word, not mine, and their system of compulsion is the rolling contract proposal, but Sir Brian Leveson sets out in forensic detail why such a proposal cannot work.

The editors of The Guardian and The Times have both written thoughtful pieces. The editor of The Guardian spoke of the need for an arbitral arm that incentivised the regulated to pursue high standards and penalised anyone who walked away. Mr James Harding, editor of The Times, went further in a lengthy and very considered signed article. He said that the industry must have an “independent, muscular regulator”, and crucially he added that

“the Lord Chief Justice should appoint someone, probably an experienced lawyer, and a panel of two others to oversee this regulator…to prevent backsliding”

and to

“be a guarantor of the regulator’s independence and effectiveness.”

I agree with all of that. The issue for Mr Harding, Mr Rusbridger, Mr Dacre and most other thoughtful editors is how to achieve that end without the underpinning legislation that has been accepted in Ireland. The truth is that they cannot. In legal theory, if the Lord Chief Justice was willing, he could be asked to appoint a couple of retired lord justices of appeal to act as an arbitral body overseeing the regulator, but what would be their terms of reference or the criteria for their appointment? How would they operate? Any sensible Lord Chief Justice would say, “Thank you very much, but I am not getting into that unless I have statutory authority.” That is the fundamental flaw: the idea we can do all that while backing away from doing what was done in Ireland.

I want to make a final point about the internet. The editor of Mail Online, Martin Clarke, was quoted in last Saturday’s Financial Times saying in a rather triumphant tone that the internet had

“destroyed the ability of governments, companies and individuals to control the flow of information to the public”.

This chap, Mr Clarke, is tilting at windmills. It is never our objective or that of anyone else for the state in a free society to control the flow of information to the public. The issue is ensuring that members of the public are not defamed and that their privacy is not unfairly intruded on. It cannot follow that because we cannot do everything we should do nothing.

Seventy years, seven reports. This is where 70 and seven equals nine: the press have had their nine lives. It is time for the Government to recognise that and to agree to implement this magisterial report.

4.57 pm

Sir Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): May I begin by declaring an interest as a practising member of the defamation and media law Bar? I speak here, however, as a Member of the House and not as a barrister representing any particular client, claimant or defendant. The fact that I am currently acting for a well-known claimant whose reputation has been grievously damaged in the recent past has no bearing on what I want to say—

Dr Thérèse Coffey: By TV.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 615

Sir Edward Garnier: As it happens, I have over the past 35—[Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) wish to intervene?

Dr Coffey: Yes. I would just like to point out that in the case of the person for whom my hon. and learned Friend is rightly working, it was television making references to that allegation, not the press.

Sir Edward Garnier: I think I might be permitted to know a little more about that case than my hon. Friend does. As it happens, I have over the past 35 years or so—[Interruption.] Would she stop mumbling?

Over the past 35 years or so, I have acted for and advised both claimants and defendants in more or less equal measure. Unsurprisingly, many of the defendants were newspaper publishers, editors and journalists and their broadcast media equivalents.

The House and the public as a whole owe a huge debt of gratitude to Lord Justice Leveson. His report is long but comprehensive. It is thorough and analytical. It contains opinion and recommendations, but they are based on fact, founded on the evidence he heard and read. Neither he nor his report can be described as “bonkers” and the report does not resort to hyperbole, make hysterical criticisms of the media or demand state control of the press. It is, in my view, a fair and balanced report that has exposed and tackled some difficult, if not entirely novel, questions.

I say that the questions were not entirely novel, because in this House in January 1960, a Mr Leslie Hale, who was then the Member for Oldham West, moved to repeal the Justices of the Peace Act 1361, among whose provisions was one to outlaw eavesdropping. A predecessor of mine as Solicitor-General, Mr Peter Rawlinson, then the Member for Epsom, said:

“Translated into ordinary terms, the Bill which the hon. Member seeks to introduce, dressed up like a radical bird of paradise, is nothing less than a modest charter for peeping Toms and eavesdroppers…It is also a charter for other strange people who pester law-abiding citizens and persons of that kind.”

He went on to say:

“The modern use of the Bill is mainly to prevent the ordinary citizen from being pestered by those unbalanced eccentrics who, with an imagined grudge, patrol the outskirts of houses, terrifying families by constant use of the telephone, or by those people who are unbalanced and usually malevolent but who do not break the law by means of assault or trespass. Therefore, there is no weapon which the law-abiding citizen has against them except the use of these powers which may be the only effective one which rests in the hands of such citizens.”—[Official Report, 26 January 1960; Vol. 616, c. 54.]

So over a period of about 600 years the issue of intrusion into the private lives of others by use of illegal listening devices, be it the human ear or electric surveillance machinery, has been current. This is one of the reasons why the inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson was initiated.

At heart, it seems to me that we are discussing the age-old problem now described as the tension between articles 8 and 10 of the European convention on human rights. Very often, people seem to remember the rights, but they do not seem to remember the exceptions to those rights. Article 8 says:

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”,

but it goes on to say:

3 Dec 2012 : Column 616

“There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”,

so it is very much a qualified right, as is article 10, which provides the right to freedom of expression. It states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.”

But paragraph 2 says:

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

There are the tensions between articles 8 and 10, and there also are the exceptions to those two great rights which nobody in the House or elsewhere would find in the least bit controversial.

The issue that we are confronting—my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Select Committee, drew this out, as have other Members this afternoon—is not whether we should have state regulation of the press. We are not talking about state regulation of the press in the sense that Mugabe, Putin or the Chinese politburo control the press. What we are talking about is whether the press needs to have a self-regulated body which is recognised by the state as being a competent authority to regulate the press’s activities.

The distinction is important. Much of the argument that one has seen in the press and elsewhere, and to some extent in discussions in and around the House, has been utterly off the point. It is to traduce the work of Lord Justice Leveson to suggest that he wants state control of the press. He has said on any number of occasions—I shall quote one or two examples—that the ideal that he is looking for is that

“the industry should come together to create, and adequately fund, an independent regulatory body, headed by an independent Board, that would: set standards, both by way of a code and covering governance and compliance; hear individual complaints against its members about breach of its standards and order appropriate redress; take an active role in promoting high standards, including having the power to investigate serious or systemic breaches and impose appropriate sanctions; and provide a fair, quick and inexpensive arbitration service to deal with any civil complaints about its members’ publications.”

As a member of the Bar, I would of course like people to litigate—that is how I pay my mortgage—but the short point is that if a system can be devised that has the approval of Parliament and which carries with it public approval and confidence, it seems to me that that mechanism, just as the Financial Services Authority is a body given permission by statute, could allow the press to inhabit a world of free expression, subject to articles 8 and 10, that would not interfere with its rights but would also adequately protect, by self-regulation,

3 Dec 2012 : Column 617

the rights of the victims of press intrusion and other forms of activity that are subject to the criminal or civil law. Of course many of the activities that led the Government to set up the Leveson inquiry were already against the criminal law, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) correctly spotted. It is illegal to hack, blag and interfere with other people’s telecommunications under various statutes going right back to the 1361 Act that outlawed eavesdropping.

Sir Gerald Howarth: Did not Lord Justice Leveson say that criminality on an industrial scale was itself part of a persistent culture of abusing private individuals, in particular, who have no recourse unless through my hon. and learned Friend, notwithstanding his modest costs? We in this House at least have a forum, but they have none at all, and that is why the report is so important. It revealed that there was a culture, and the press must deal with that, not just the criminality.

Sir Edward Garnier rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Shorter interventions would be helpful. I know that two knights want to exchange views, but I worry about the costs that might be charged.

Sir Edward Garnier: I agree with the premise of my hon. Friend’s point but think that we perhaps draw different conclusions from it. Lord Justice Leveson has stated, as did our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the beginning of this debate, that the status quo is not an option, so if we learn nothing else from Leveson, we should learn that what went before cannot go on. It seems to me to be uncontroversial that the PCC is dead, for example. We need some other form of disciplinary body or regulatory system that matches public concern but also has parliamentary approval. We could approve through parliamentary procedure a body that is not statutory, but we could also approve a regulatory body that is not the creature of Parliament but that would be recognised and saluted by statute. There are plenty of other bodies that discipline the professions or other public bodies but that are not controlled by the Government.

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): Lord Justice Leveson’s approach is to argue that regulation must be independent not only of the press, but of Parliament, but he then calls for a statute, drafted by Parliament, detailing the criteria for recognition of the regulations, and that covers everything, from membership of the regulator to the content of the new rules and its powers. How does my hon. and learned Friend reconcile what strikes me as a fatal paradox in that approach?

Sir Edward Garnier: I do not have to reconcile it, because I find the answer on page 1,780 in part K of the report. I will not read it out because I do not have enough time, but I suggest to my hon. Friend that it repays reading. He should look at paragraphs 6.38 and 6.39. If I was a member of an appellate court, I would simply ask the shorthand writer to transcribe it into my judgment, but I cannot—I say to the Hansard reporter, have a go. Essentially, my hon. Friend’s point is one that is often made. If I may say so, with a little thought and

3 Dec 2012 : Column 618

study of the report, he will find that it is not strictly necessary to have the concerns, genuine though they are, that he displays and that they are dealt with by Lord Justice Leveson.

Time is running short and I have galloped through the points I wanted to make, no doubt inadequately and in a somewhat garbled fashion. There is plenty in the report that touches on the police, the conduct of the press and the appalling treatment meted out to victims, such as the Dowler family and others. That is all a given. It is also a given that the status quo ante must finish.

The debate that we are having, in this House and outside, is about what we mean by statutory regulation. To me, statutory regulation means no more and no less than what Lord Justice Leveson says: that a statute will recognise as an effective way of dealing with press conduct—and wider media conduct, including the internet—the disciplinary system to which the press must adhere. Clearly, we need buy-in from the widest possible section of the media, including the ordinary traditional press—the newspaper groups—and television and broadcast media through to the local press and others. I recognise that there will be difficulties over individual bloggers and so forth.

If we concentrate on what this report is not about, we miss a trick. Let us concentrate on what it is about, which is the democratic and constitutionally proper regulation of a disciplinary system.

5.10 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I was a staff journalist for 10 years. For nine of those years, I worked for the Daily Mirror, which at its zenith sold 5 million copies a day. I reported directly to the editorial director, Hugh Cudlipp, this country’s greatest ever popular journalist. Cudlipp was obsessive about factual accuracy and fair reporting. The excesses that led to the Leveson inquiry could never have happened in Cudlipp’s bailiwick. I was proud to be a journalist and remain a member of the National Union of Journalists to this day.

It would be difficult to retain that pride if I were a working journalist in the newspaper industry today. Respect for fact has almost vanished. When I was Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, a newspaper printed a big story about our Committee going to Los Angeles. I rang up the journalist who wrote the story and said, “It isn’t Los Angeles—it’s Scarborough.” The journalist replied, “Oh, it’s all the same thing.” Fair reporting: tell me another joke! The dictum in 1926 of C. P. Scott, the editor of The Manchester Guardian, is dead and buried. He said of the newspaper:

“Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

Twenty years ago, the National Heritage Committee, of which I was Chairman, conducted an inquiry into privacy and media intrusion. What it said in its report, published in March 1993, might just as well have been written today:

“There cannot be a free society without a free press…a free society requires the freedom to say or print things that are inconvenient to those in authority…While continual antagonism

3 Dec 2012 : Column 619

between the press and persons in authority is unnecessary, critical tension between them is an essential ingredient of a democratic society and far preferable to collusion between the press and public figures…At the same time, in a democratic society there must be a right to privacy as well…it must not be ignored by those who claim that everything that everybody does is fair game, so long as it provides a saucy story to be published in the diary column of a broadsheet newspaper or across the front page of a tabloid…The Committee’s concern, in conducting this inquiry, has been mainly with the ordinary citizen who in the normal course of his or her life will never come into contact with the broadcast or written media except as a viewer, listener or reader; but who suddenly becomes of interest to the media, due often to circumstances beyond his or her control, such as becoming a crime victim or being related to the victim of a crime or terrorist act. Such people, as a result of injudicious, thoughtless or malicious reporting, can suffer additional distress at what is already a time of trauma and shock. Their family relationships, their jobs, their businesses and their careers can all be seriously damaged. The Committee does not believe that anyone has the right to inflict such harm on innocent persons.”

The Committee went on to say:

“A balance is needed between the right of free speech and the right to privacy. The Committee’s view is that at present that necessary balance does not exist, and in this Report it recommends action to achieve it. The Committee does not believe that this balance can or should be achieved by legislation which imprisons the press in a cage of legal restraint…The Committee would be deeply reluctant to see the creation of any system of legal restraints aimed solely and specifically at the press or the broadcast media. It believes that self-restraint or, as the Committee prefers to call it, voluntary restraint, is by far the better way.”

It recommended the enhancement of

“voluntary regulation by the press through the strengthening of the Press Commission (which the Committee recommends should succeed the Press Complaints Commission) and its Code, and expansion of the Commission’s scope”,

and the

“creation of a statutory Press Ombudsman, as a back-up to the Commission’s role.”

Jim Dowd: Do not my right hon. Friend’s experience and knowledge and the facts he has just regaled demonstrate how circular this argument has become and that we really ought to do something different, rather than simply repeat the inactivity and mistakes of the past?

Sir Gerald Kaufman: My hon. Friend intervened just as I was about to go on to that very point. Twenty years ago, the National Heritage Committee made those recommendations. We analysed the disease and proposed a remedy. During the four remaining years of the then Conservative Government, nothing whatever was done. I am sorry to say that, during the 13 years of the Labour Government who followed, nothing at all was done either. We have known about this disease for very many years. The Leveson inquiry was founded because of new and horrific revelations about what the press did. What the press was doing 20 years ago should have been remedied then, but neither party did so. We face the same problems with the press that we faced in 1993, except that we now know far more about the malpractices of the press than we did then.

We can wait no longer. Even before our 1993 report, in 1989 David Mellor warned the press that they were drinking in the last-chance saloon. In the 23 years since then, the press have been on a prolonged pub crawl. Now this House must say, “Time gentlemen, please.”

3 Dec 2012 : Column 620

I am as firmly opposed to statutory control of the press as I have ever been. That is the ethic of a free press in any country. We went to the United States and saw the way in which it could regulate the excesses of the press through privacy Acts protected by the fifth amendment. We could have had the same thing here. We could have had a privacy Act that applied not only to the press and that was protected by a public interest defence. It would have been valid, because when Clive Ponting was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for revelations about the sinking of the Belgrano, he pleaded the public interest and the jury acquitted him. We therefore had a functioning system for protection, but what happened then is that my good old friend, Douglas Hurd, brought a Bill before Parliament to abolish the public interest defence under the Official Secrets Act.

As I have said, I am as opposed to statutory control of the press as I have ever been, but the press cannot go on pretending to regulate itself while not doing so. Although the Leveson report’s recommendations are not perfect—the gaps in the way in which the body is to operate are clear to anybody who reads the report and will cause problems in implementation—they are incomparably better than what exists now and the alleged improvements proposed by the press.

As someone who would be exceptionally reluctant to vote in this House for statutory backing of a voluntary press regime, I say firmly to the press proprietors, “Either you establish the Leveson regulation regime on a voluntary basis fast, without dragging your feet, and ensure that all proprietors, including Richard Desmond, participate, or you will be responsible for statute entering into press regulation.” It is up to the press. There is a short time for them to make that decision. They will be responsible if statute enters into press regulation. It is important for them to bear that in mind in the short period that remains before decisions are made.

5.21 pm

Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Two questions must be asked of any and every proposal for legislation. The first is what problems it will solve and the second is what problems it will create.

First, the problems that gave rise to the Leveson inquiry were phone hacking, bribing and outrageous criminal libel. Those are already against the law or legal redress exists for them. The problem was a failure to enforce the law. Leveson boldly dismisses those issues in asserting, without adducing any evidence, that

“More rigorous application of the criminal law…does not and will not provide the solution.”

Of course it will. It is now, belatedly, doing so. Scores of people have been arrested and face serious charges. That is a powerful deterrent against any repetition.

The apparatus of independent regulation backed by statute, which Leveson proposes, would have no powers to address the very problems that he was supposed to be dealing with. Indeed, it could not do so, because they are matters for the police and the judiciary. His solution would not have prevented or provided punishment for the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, the payments to police by the News of the World or the vile libel by the Sunday Express of the McCanns. Indeed, Leveson states in his recommendations that

“The Board should not have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time”.

The board could not, therefore, have stopped that libel.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 621

If Leveson had acknowledged that, it would have truncated his report, so he went ahead and proposed a regulatory structure that, amazingly, does not specify the problems with which it is supposed to deal. It is a solution looking for a problem. That, in my experience, is a dangerous thing to create. It would have powers to draw up a code of practice, but Leveson does not spell out what the contents of the code should be. The independent regulator, with the approval of its statutory minder, but not of this House, would be able to select the problems that it tackled.

The second question is what problems the proposal might create. Leveson was goaded into making complex proposals by the two most dangerous phrases in the political lexicon: “Something must be done” and “The status quo is not an option.” That is the mantra of those in the commentariat who have no idea what should be done, but who want to sound positive. I have little sympathy for the newspapers that invariably demand unspecified Government interference to solve any problem and now find themselves hoist by their own petard. The status quo, however unsatisfactory, is sometimes less bad than all the alternatives. Churchill said that democracy is the worst kind of government except for all the alternatives, and I believe that a free and unregulated press, with all its failings, is the worst kind of media except for all the alternatives, which, by necessity, involve state regulation.

I do not have a rosy view of the press and I suffered from them repeatedly over 20 years. I remember the “back to basics” initiative, when John Major’s use of that phrase was taken by the media as advocating family values, even though he made no reference to that. The press claimed it was their duty to investigate the private life of every Cabinet Minister. They called on all my neighbours, offering them money if they had “any filth about Lilley.” They offered rewards in the local pub opposite my house for people who knew anything about me or could see any “goings on” in our bedroom. Worst of all, the Daily Mirror made its front-page splash a story about me visiting my nephew who was dying of AIDS. It was intended to smear me in some vile way, but it simply caused immense distress to my sister. It was a vile time so I know how horrible a free press can be.

Had the strong, independent regulator underpinned by statute that we are considering existed, would—and should—it have called off the press hounds during “back to basics”? There were no calls from the Opposition Benches for the then regulator to do so. I do not believe that a regulator should have the power to do so, but if it did have such a power, the decision would be intensely political. We would be handing over to the regulatory body a political power of which we need to be aware.

Sir Gerald Howarth: Those of us who have sympathy with Leveson’s case are not seeking to hand over powers. We are seeking to establish—I think there is common ground across the House on this—whether the press should set up a robust self-regulatory body. There is nothing from our experience of the past 70 years that offers any confidence that it is capable of doing that, which is why some of us believe—as Lord Justice Leveson said—that there should be some statutory validation of that self-regulatory body.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 622

Mr Lilley: I am in favour of the press having better standards but the best form of regulation is what we saw—The Guardian exposing the failures of the News of the World; “Panorama” exposing the failures of “Newsnight” —not a regulatory body, whether or not underpinned by the state. My hon. Friend is uncharacteristic. Those who jump to the conclusion that we need state-backed regulation assume that that is always an improvement on voluntary actions and arrangements. Such faith is a triumph of hope over experience and people forget the law of unforeseen consequences. Regulation invariably has unforeseen—but not necessarily unforeseeable—consequences.

Jim Dowd: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Lilley: I will not at the moment. Lord Leveson proposes giving a state regulator the power and duty every two or three years to review and approve—or disapprove—the code and how it is implemented and enforced by the regulator. That is either a substantial power with important consequences or a trivial power with negligible consequences. The latter is unimportant so why insist on it? If the power is significant and will have substantial ramifications and consequences for the way the regulator behaves, the content of the code and the way it is enforced, we should look at it very carefully.

I know from many years of studying regulation that one consequence of regulators being given the power to review and prescribe detail is that the regulator—the state supervisor—will at every biennial or triennial review demand not less but more and stricter regulation. Has my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) ever known a regulator demand less regulation rather than more? It is a recipe for regulatory creep and increasingly detailed specification by the state supervisor of what the so-called independent regulator must do.

The other consequence that some fear from a regulatory system that is overseen and supervised by a statutory regulator is that the regulator will nudge the code and its enforcement in line with the prejudices of the Government of the day. I doubt that that would be the immediate consequence, although it could be the consequence in the long term, but the statutory body that oversees how the regulatory apparatus works would follow either the Government’s prejudices or its own. We want to beware of that. If the statutory body is like the regulatory structures we normally set up, we will have a pretty clear idea how it will behave, but by definition it will be outside the direct control of the House, so hon. Members will have no say in it.

Mr Raab: I have an objection in principle to a statutory body or a body underpinned by statute both making and enforcing the rules. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that such a blurring of powers in the new body risks arbitrary decision making and is inimical to the rule of law?

Mr Lilley: Exactly; that is very much what I fear if the statutory body, following its own prejudices, determines the contents of the code and how it is enforced. Such a body would almost inevitably be made up of the sort of people who run and control the BBC. The BBC Trust has got into trouble for telling untruths about how it decided there should be unbalanced coverage of climate change and many other things, so we know the sort of prejudices such bodies have.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 623

Lord Leveson specifies only one item of the code that the new body should contain. He says that it should “equip” the

“body with the power to intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation.”

The body will be a politically correct one, enforcing politically correct standards on the media and press.

The body will also have the power to establish a

“ringfenced enforcement fund, into which receipts from fines could be paid, for the purpose of funding investigations.”

It will therefore have an incentive to levy fines, and in that way it will carry out investigations to increase and enhance its power and control over the so-called independent regulator.

Chris Bryant: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Lilley: I am afraid I will give way only if the hon. Gentleman apologises for the way in which he has traduced my right hon. Friends.

Chris Bryant rose

Mr Lilley: No. I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman.

The House should think seriously about setting up a body of statutory supervision that has detailed and substantial powers to influence how the so-called independent regulator behaves, and that has an incentive to enhance, increase and make more detailed that interference in regulation. The House will have no direct control over it, so it will therefore be an abnegation of the House’s duty.

The free press is vile, but it is better to have a free press with all its failings than to have a state-controlled and regulated press. I hope we do not go down that route.

5.33 pm

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): As hon. Members know, the press of late have come in for some knocking—justifiably—for scandal, corruption and illegal practice, but it is also obvious from the inquiry that urgent action needs to be taken to restore the public’s confidence in the media. I do not intend to dwell on the reasons for the inquiry because all hon. Members agree on them. We also agree that it is vital that freedom of the press is maintained and upheld, as it is in any strong democracy, but I was glad that the inquiry did not shy away from controversy, and that it recommended, in effect, a regulatory body whose independence is guaranteed by law. We have heard fine speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House—there are entrenched feelings on both sides, and this debate is an important one.

Unlike wholly independent regulation, regulation by either the state or the media would clearly fail to be truly accountable. At the same time, it is vital that we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater, so protecting freedom of expression and high standards of journalism is non-negotiable. Much attention has been paid recently to the kind of model we could look at for the regulated body. Something similar to the Office for Judicial

3 Dec 2012 : Column 624

Complaints or those bodies overseeing medical practitioners, vets, barristers or lawyers, have been suggested by some. There is, of course, a crucial distinction. They are licensed and, because they are licensed, they are entitled to practice, and that is an entirely different thing altogether. Incidentally, all those bodies are creatures of statute and nobody says that they interfere politically with anybody delivering services. However, I would think that every journalist would baulk at having to be licensed, and naturally so.

We need something to replace the Press Complaints Commission, which palpably has failed over many years to deliver. It has been characterised by lack of teeth and ineffectual compromises and, in addition, it has only covered the actions of the press that have opted into the system. Some serial transgressors decided to opt out and redress against them was then limited to the libel courts, access to which was unaffordable for many people—indeed, the vast majority.

We have heard about the Irish model. Although that is not a statutory body, it is recognised in legislation—the Defamation Act 2009. It has the power to deal with complaints made against its member publications. There is also a press complaints ombudsman, and both the ombudsman and the Press Council of Ireland are funded by a levy paid by each member title, based on circulation. Member titles of the PCI become members on a voluntary basis and are subject to a code of practice. Interestingly, as has been mentioned, all UK newspapers that also publish in Ireland have joined the PCI, and that includes even those that now oppose what they think is statutory regulation in the UK. During the inquiry, oral evidence was heard from many corners. A number of individuals suggested that the PCI could be a model to be replicated in England and Wales, and that it is recognised by statute, but not set up by statute.

The PCC is UK-wide. It is confusing, however, that despite servicing all parts of the UK, the PCC, which is based in London, states on its website:

“Newspapers from all four countries circulate across borders and are often owned by the same companies. Separate PCCs…would lead to confusion…as well as considerable additional expense.”

It is disheartening that the Prime Minister has hitherto hinted that he is reluctant to follow suit and implement the findings of the inquiry in total. Supporting regulation in principle is not enough. Changes must be implemented in practice for there to be a meaningful change. We have heard about 70 years and seven attempts and so on, but central to any new system must be access to restitution, and a simple and easy-to-navigate complaints process.

In his statement to the press last week, Sir Brian Leveson chose his words very carefully. He pointed to the elephant in the room: the internet and Twitter, which is another issue that we will have to look at in the not-too-distant future. I would welcome comments from Government Members on how we can tackle that anomaly.

Lord Leveson’s inquiry was a careful and thoughtful process, and its recommendations have been reached by hearing a vast amount of evidence. Sir Brian has said that statutory underpinning is vital. He was at pains to say that freedom of the press was vital, and that freedom from political interference is, of course, extremely important. On statutory underpinning, he said:

“What would the legislation achieve? Three things. First, it would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press. Second, it would provide an

3 Dec 2012 : Column 625

independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and continue to be met; in the Report, I recommend that this is done by Ofcom. Third, by recognising the new body, it would validate its standards code and the arbitral system sufficient to justify the benefits in law that would flow to those who subscribed; these could relate to data protection and the approach of the court to various issues concerning acceptable practice, in addition to costs consequences if appropriate alternative dispute resolution is available.”

He goes on to say:

“Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press.”

Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Ind): We have heard a great deal about the great and good so far in this debate, and it has been interesting, but does the right hon. Gentleman think that sometimes Leveson might just say something—it might actually be so—but that we might take a different view?

Mr Llwyd: Having read large parts of the report—it is a carefully constructed document that has evaluated the evidence—I take Sir Brian Leveson at his word. I do not see what benefit would accrue to him if he said something he did not believe to be true, and I do not think for one minute that he would say that.

Eric Joyce: We just might disagree.

Mr Llwyd: Others may disagree, of course—that is why we are having the debate. I respect the fact that others may disagree—that is what debate is all about.

Personally, I do not quite see the merit in the current debate being about “non-statutory” or “statutory”. It seems to me that there will have to be some form of legislation in any event. Some argue that because the head of Ofcom is appointed by Government, choosing Ofcom or a similar body as the underpinning regulatory body—or, say, a version of it—could lead to political interference. I had a debate on the radio on Friday with the ex-head of legal affairs at the Telegrapha man I have known for many years and whose views I respect. He proposed the notion that involving Ofcom amounted to possible political interference. I asked him for examples of where Ofcom had acted politically in the past. I am yet to hear of any example of where that may be the case. Sir Brian’s proposals are clearly well thought out and the exact opposite of “bonkers”. The Government should adopt them in full.

Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman has just confirmed what I was hoping he would say—that he feels that the proposals are not bonkers. We have all been written to by Christopher Jefferies on behalf of the Hacked Off campaign. He is a constituent of mine and someone I have known for over a decade. He was arrested, during which time he was traduced by the national newspapers, something he has said was the worst period of his life. He asks us to endorse Lord Leveson’s proposals. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?

Mr Llwyd: Yes, I do—that has been the theme of what I have been saying for the last seven minutes. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has got his intervention in and that is quite important. However, I say with

3 Dec 2012 : Column 626

respect that I agree. We have all received letters from families and individuals who have suffered immensely at the hands of the press of late. I therefore welcome the proposals. We owe it to all those families and individuals to get it right, because if we in Parliament fail to grasp the nettle for the eighth time in 70 years and do not put matters right, it will be tantamount to letting them down very badly indeed and turning our backs on this historic opportunity.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the Leveson recommendations contain sufficient protection for whistleblowers?

Mr Llwyd: Surely it is up to us as parliamentarians to ensure that we build those protections in. There are many important core things that we need to ensure. For instance, we need to ensure that people’s sources are kept in the private domain, and there are many other things that we need to do. Those are the details that we shall have to go through carefully in the coming weeks.

Like the press, we Members of Parliament are now held in low esteem, because of the scandals involving some Members. Failure to deal decisively with this problem without fear or favour will plunge us into further and deeper opprobrium, and we will deserve it.

5.44 pm

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): We are having today’s debate because the current system of media self-regulation has not only failed, but failed spectacularly, again and again. I suspect that the majority of Members in the Chamber agree on what now needs to be achieved—in other words, the outcome. Where there are differences, they relate to the method of delivering that outcome. An editor of the “ConservativeHome” website—a vehicle that has been vociferously opposed to any kind of legislation—wrote a few days ago, just before the report came out:

“What’s needed post-Leveson is a settlement that helps…ordinary victims…That’s a new, non press-run complaints body with the power to fine and punish papers—which is, none the less, independent of the state.”

I agree with that absolutely, and I am sure that most other Members do. The question is: can we achieve that without legislation? I do not think that we can.

I question some elements of the Leveson report, which I will come to in a moment, but I do not accept the hyperbole emanating from those media commentators who are opposed to change. Nor do I think it responsible for otherwise serious papers to imply that those MPs who advocate some form of regulation are motivated by self-interest. I think we can all agree that The Daily Telegraph was scraping the barrel when it accused my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—who is not in his place at the moment—of taking revenge on the media because he had been criticised for supporting the poll tax in 1990. I do not know my right hon. and learned Friend particularly well, and there are many issues on which we disagree, but it strikes me as unlikely that he would harbour a grudge for 25 years over something so routine.

We have been told that any form of legislation would irreparably damage the ability of the press to do what it does best—uncovering corruption, exposing hypocrisy, holding the elite to account—and that our democracy

3 Dec 2012 : Column 627

would be impaired as a result. However, no serious commentator, and no MP, is advocating any measure that would weaken the scrutiny of elected representatives or hand them any control over the press. At most, some MPs are calling for statutory recognition of an independent regulator. We want something that looks like the Press Complaints Commission but that is not controlled by the very people it exists to regulate—in short, a PCC that is independent of the media and of politicians, and that has the power to impose fines and demand apologies.

None of this is inherently new. There is nothing new about fines—the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror were both fined this year for contempt of court—and the principle that journalists and newspapers should abide by a code of practice is well established. It has been accepted by editors and proprietors for decades, since the editors’ code of practice came into being. The difference is that a new code might be more than simply a fig leaf.

Some commentators argue that a new statute would provide a greater opportunity for a future authoritarian Government to gag the press. That is an illogical argument. A statute can be drafted to prevent amendment other than by fresh primary legislation, which would leave a future Government in exactly the same situation as the one we are in today. Regardless of that, however, it is a basic fact of democracy that with enough votes, any Government can pass any law they like, as the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) pointed out earlier. I suppose that that is one of the downsides of any democracy, as well as one of the upsides.

Jim Dowd: One of the principles of this place is, rightly or wrongly, that Parliament is sovereign, but is it not an act of the grossest deceit and vanity for any Member to claim that, magically, we are noble but that those who come after us might not be?

Zac Goldsmith: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; I agree with him.

A new statute to make independent regulation effective would improve investigative journalism, if it included express public interest defences. It would ensure that when the ends were in the public interest, the means would be justified. The example of The Daily Telegraph has already been cited, but I will give it again. The information that led to the expenses scandal was illegally accessed, but it was so obviously in the public interest that no one has ever challenged the newspaper. Theoretically, it could have been challenged. We now have an opportunity to protect journalists engaged in that kind of activity.

Let us not pretend that the state does not already influence the media; it does. There are countless laws relating to the press, a number of which—defamation and contempt, for instance—bear directly on the content of newspapers. What is more, despite arguing vigorously against any form of state intervention in the media, Lord Black and Paul Dacre have both advocated the use of legislation in their own submissions to Leveson. Both advocated a tribunal that could hear defamation and privacy cases and protect newspapers from high legal costs and damages, and both acknowledged that that would require statute. It does not follow that legislation

3 Dec 2012 : Column 628

would inhibit journalism. For example, Finland, which has been No. 1 on the world press freedom index in eight of the past 10 years, has a system of independent press regulation backed by statute. In 2003, it passed a law that gave people a right of reply and gave publications a duty to correct.

Television has a far higher level of regulation than anything I—indeed, most people in the Chamber—would endorse for newspapers, but it is worth noting that, no matter what survey we choose to look at, we see that television remains the country’s most trusted medium. Neither is television journalism cowed. Every Government, more or less without exception, have taken issue with the BBC, fought with the BBC and actively disliked the BBC. In addition, many of the recent high-profile exposés—for example, of Jimmy Savile, Winterborne View, of “The Secret Policeman”, racism in Polish football and so on—came from television.

Those who oppose any form of legislation have genuine fears, and I absolutely do not seek to discount them or pretend they do not exist. Good regulation would, I believe, improve our newspapers without inhibiting any public interest journalism; bad legislation would do immeasurable harm. There is room here to get it very wrong.

I want to point briefly to what I believe is a mistake made by Lord Leveson. The same “ConservativeHome” editor I cited earlier made a statement that I thought risible at the time. He said:

“Essentially, they”,

meaning advocates of legislation,

“want to create a climate of opinion in which, for example, doubt can’t be expressed about whether global warming is driven by human activity.”

Having read much of the Leveson report, although I admit not all of it, I have some concerns. Instead of confining himself to protecting the victims of newspaper smears and malpractice—Christopher Jeffries, Milly Dowler and so forth—I believe Lord Leveson has strayed beyond his brief. Let me quote directly from the report:

“Overall, the evidence in relation to the representation of women and minorities suggests that there has been a significant tendency within the press which leads to the publication of prejudicial or pejorative references to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or physical or mental illness or disability…A new regulator will need to address these issues as a matter of priority, the first steps being to amend practice and the Code to permit third party complaints.”

The rumbustious, politically incorrect and sometimes irresponsible—and, in my view, occasionally, appalling—approach of the tabloids is not to everyone’s taste, but in an open society, it is part of the rough and tumble of free expression. I know I am not in a minority on either side of the House when I say that we must never make it possible for lobby groups with their own political agendas to suppress free speech. Unless there is an individual victim with a legitimate grievance, the regulator has no business interfering.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): Could my hon. Friend produce an example of such a system somewhere other than Finland and Ireland? One of the problems of this debate is that it is difficult to point to a country such as the United States, France or Germany where such a regulator exists, but perhaps I have misunderstood.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 629

Zac Goldsmith: I sense that an answer is bubbling up in the speech we will hear from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I cannot answer my hon. Friend’s question, as the examples I have given are the examples I know, but it does not change the principle. In effect, we are effectively talking about taking the editor’s code—a code written up by the editor—and giving it teeth. What I cannot understand is why the media commentators who so viciously oppose any kind of legislation would oppose putting into law something that they themselves have deemed okay and appropriate because they have designed it themselves. There is a break in the argument there that I am yet to understand.

I will actively support the creation of a genuinely independent regulatory body, backed up in law, that exists to even the playing field, so that newspapers can be held to account for their behaviour, so that individuals can seek fair redress and so that the code can be seen as real and not, as it is today, synthetic. I would not support a Bill that went beyond that. In common with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham—I mention Peckham and the other lovely part of the constituency—I support the creation of a slim Bill that guards against slippage and creep, but which does the job.

Finally, I want to make a suggestion. When the Secretary of State meets editors tomorrow, I urge her to ask them to develop a proper plan—not the already and widely discredited Hunt and Black proposals, but a real plan—and then to present it early next year, in January or February. Parliament should then be invited to decide in a free vote—in my view, it must be a free vote—whether the plan goes far enough. If we decide that it does, that is the end of the matter. If we decide it does not, we would commit ourselves to creating a new PCC backed up by statute. As a means of avoiding division in this House, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said she wishes to avoid, over such a complex and highly sensitive issue, I can think of no better mechanism.

5.54 pm

Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who made what I thought was a cogent and clear statement of the case. Although I did not agree with the conclusions that the Secretary of State has reached—let us hope, pro tem—I strongly share her view that there is not that much between most Members about what needs to be done about the conduct of the press. I agree most strongly with the views expressed by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) who said that if there is a conflict between the victims of the press and the owners of the press, this House must come down clearly on the side of the victims.

Members have spoken from their own personal experience—I, too, have had my private life dragged through the pages of the tabloids. As a holder of public office—I was a member of Lewisham council for 20 years before I came to this House 20 years ago—I might be regarded as fair game, but other members of my family and my friends did not stand for public office, and none of my election literature ever featured any of them. It was not because I was ashamed of them, but because I was not asking anybody to vote for them. I was asking people to vote for me, and the wise people of Lewisham repeatedly did so over the years.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 630

I am prepared to take a bit of rough and tumble myself, but one of my daughter’s friends had her school staked out by journalists from one particular tabloid, which I think is absolutely unforgiveable. People in that situation need not just our sympathy and warm words but our protection, and we need to formulate a system so they can obtain it. I disagreed in a number of ways with the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley). We do not need just a punitive system, but a preventive system—not one where people can get redress, but where they are protected in the first place from having to undergo these traumas.

Let us not forget where the origins of the Leveson report lie. Most Members will recall the famous publication by a chap called Peter Burden—“Fake Sheikhs and Royal Trappings”, a story about the News of the World. In one part of the book, he recounts a conversational exchange with one of the journalists at the newspaper. Let me stress, however, that anybody who believes that the News of the World was a one-off and that the problem has now been solved is living in a dream land. This shows the way the tabloid press behaves. The conversation culminated with a Mr Greg Miskiw—currently, I believe, before the courts, awaiting trial for illegally accessing telecommunications—saying:

“that is what we do—we go out and destroy other people’s lives.”

That is clearly the most damning statement in the book, but it goes on. A particular reporter left the News of the World, it says,but

“nothing changed. Over many years the paper has set out deliberately and without compassion to destroy other people’s lives in order to sell newspapers. The supreme discomfort of others is meat and drink to the paper, and the extent to which they hurt people concerns them only as far as the cost of any damages that might subsequently be claimed. Cynical judgements are made about the price of knowingly committing some actionable offence, assessing what a likely settlement would be, and balancing that against the anticipated increase in sales.”

That is the morality of tabloid journalism—and it is and has been rife throughout the industry.

I will say that those excesses have been curbed to some degree in recent years—or certainly in the most recent year. Since the establishment of the Leveson inquiry, there has been a marked improvement in behaviour, but only because of what Leveson might bring forward. If they can get round this hurdle, they will go back to doing exactly the same again in the future.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): My good friend raised an important point when he quoted Peter Burden. Does he agree that perhaps the most extreme example is the case of the late Princess Diana? We will all welcome the news that the Duchess of Cambridge has announced that she and Prince William are expecting their first child. Do we also think that the press should observe their recent conversion, and give the couple the privacy that they deserve in the early days of the pregnancy?

Jim Dowd: I am hardly likely to disagree, am I? [Laughter.] Good luck to them, and so say all of us. I am taken aback by the sheer irrelevance of the question. If I may, I will get back on track, and return to the subject of the conduct of the press.

The Press Complaints Commission has never been a natural arbiter or umpire in these matters. It has always been the creature of the newspapers and their proprietors,

3 Dec 2012 : Column 631

year after year, but it has not always been so staggeringly ineffective. Examples that I have heard in the recent past of the sheer ineptitude and incompetence of its leadership indicate that any future statutory body, or whatever we call it, should not include anyone who has ever been connected with it. It has betrayed the British public by pretending that it can police the excess of the press and failing dismally to do so, and by failing so dismally, it has encouraged the worst excesses of the tabloid press.

After last Thursday’s statement, my good friend—although not in political terms, as he sits on the other side of the House—the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and I attended the same event in the City. We spent the best part of 20 minutes arguing animatedly about the Leveson report and our responses to it. The hon. Gentleman and I have different views, but most of those 20 minutes were occupied by an argument that is one of the features of this place and the Members in it: we were arguing over whether he agreed with me or I agreed with him. We were both seeking to achieve the same thing.

As others have said, legislation will result from Leveson, and so it should. This is the first of many debates on the subject. We need to apply ourselves, with the best of intentions, to describing exactly what that legislation should be. As others have already declared, it should be minimalist but also robust. It should give and guarantee freedom to the independent press regulator, and also enable it to do its job.

The idea that the press can be trusted is a strange one, because all the evidence has shown that they cannot. Not only do they believe that they should be left to their own devices—that they are above control and regulation—but they openly flaunt the fact that they believe that to be the case. Last week, The Spectator—a magazine which, I am led to believe, is much read by Members on the other side of the House, although I have to say that I have read it myself on occasion—stated:

“If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government. If such a group is constituted we will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces.”

However—and we can all be grateful for this—

“We would still obey the (other) laws of the land.”

How very generous! How very kind! How very noble! Perhaps we should ring The Spectator once a week and ask, “Which laws do you want to abide by this week? Which laws do you want to abide by next week? Which laws do you not care for and will have nothing to do with?”

The Spectator went on to say:

“But to join any scheme which subordinates press to parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for”

in all the 15 years

“since its inception in 1828.”

I added the bit about the 15 years—it is not actually there—but, by Spectator standards, it is not much further forward than that.

What those people are basically saying is that they are above the law. This Parliament and the British people can say what they like, but if it does not meet

3 Dec 2012 : Column 632

their approval, they will not abide by it. That is the calibre of the people with whom we are dealing, and we cannot trust them to act in the public interest.

Eric Joyce: I suppose that what The Spectator and its editor meant was that they would not take part in that whole structure, and so they would then be regulated directly by Ofcom as per the recommendations of Leveson.

Jim Dowd: They cannot possibly have meant that; otherwise they would not have alluded to all the “other” laws of the land. They meant that this would be a law of the land, and that they would not obey it.

Why do we have the rule of law? What is the purpose of this place? As far as I am aware, everyone in this place is united in believing in the rule of law, but what does the rule of law do? Predominantly, it protects the weak and not the strong. If there were no law, the strong would always get their way, by force if necessary. The weak are defended by the law. It provides the only way in which they can seek any redress, and Lord Leveson’s report—certainly in terms of its advocacy of a new method of dealing with the press—is empowering to those who currently cannot obtain the justice that they deserve.

Given what the rule of law does, it is no surprise that the strong—in the shape of the press barons, media moguls or whatever we wish to call them—are demanding that there should not be a law, because they know that it will curb their power. I do not mean their power to observe and comment as they see fit; no one is talking about a commissar to sanction every single item that goes into a national or a local paper. We are talking about regulating the way in which those people conduct themselves, and, more particularly, the way in which they treat the other citizens of these islands.

As I said earlier, if there is a dispute between the rich and powerful and the weak and powerless, it is the duty of this House, and certainly of those on this side of the House, to stand up for the latter.

6.7 pm

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about such an important issue as the future of press regulation. However, I am disappointed that following the publication of the Leveson report, the media have sought to render the debate as an attack on free speech rather than an attempt to ensure that there is proper redress for the innocent victims who have been bullied and abused throughout this whole affair. We owe it to the victims of these scandals to debate Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals principally with them in mind.

In the run-up to the report’s publication, the Deputy Prime Minister stated that

“assuming he”—

that is, Lord Leveson—

“comes up with proposals which are proportionate and workable, we should implement them.”

I believe that these proposals are proportionate and workable. Similarly, the Prime Minister said that if the Leveson report was “not bonkers”, he would implement it. I also believe that the report is not bonkers, and that it is right for the Government to implement its core principles.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 633

Lord Justice Leveson has suggested tough, independent regulation that will maintain a raucous and vigorous press while at the same time ensuring that the innocent victims of press intrusion have access to justice. This is independent regulation, free of the press and free of the politicians. It is a careful balancing act that can ensure the freedom of the press, and also fair recourse for those who have been wronged by the press.

During the inquiry, the Deputy Prime Minister set out in his written evidence six core principles that would have to apply to a new regulatory system. They were independence from both Government and the media; better protection for journalists acting in the public interest; powers to initiate investigations rather than just complaints; meaningful penalties, whether financial or non-financial; a third-party right of complaint; and membership of all relevant organisations, given that some major news producers have chosen to operate outside the current regime. The question for me is this: do Lord Justice Leveson's proposals encapsulate those six principles? I believe that they do.

Lord Justice Leveson proposes a system of voluntary independent self-regulation overseen by an independent board. The board’s membership would be appointed in a fair, open and transparent way, and would contain a majority of members who are demonstrably independent of the press, with no serving editors. In order to provide sufficient incentives for the press to join the regulator, however, we need to strike a balance between the incentives and disincentives. In order for the incentives to work, it is essential that there is law to underpin the independence of the regulator and also to allow the courts to take membership of the regulator into account when deciding what penalties are required in cases of wrongdoing.

I understand that some Members are wary of using legislation, but Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals do not, and will not, result in state control of the press. Legislation will simply secure the following: continued independence of the media; routine external checks by an independent commissioner, to make sure the regulator or regulators are doing their job properly; and strong incentives for newspapers to sign up to a recognised regulator, including access to a fast, cheap and effective process to resolve disputes and enable victims of press abuse to seek redress. If any newspaper refused to sign up to an approved regulator, it would face higher costs and fewer legal protections. A similar system of statutory incentives is operating in Ireland, which the majority of newspapers—including those who have shunned the Press Complaints Commission here—have signed up to.

Does such a system attack free speech? In my view, it absolutely does not. It simply provides recourse for people who have been treated unfairly by the press. As a Liberal, I firmly believe in a free press that holds the powerful to account and is not subject to political interference, but a free press does not, and must not, mean a press that is free to bully innocent people or abuse grieving families. People who feel they have been mistreated by powerful newspapers need to know there is somebody prepared to stand up for them and investigate their complaints, independent of any interference.

There is a certain irony in the press arguing for free speech. I am one of a number of Greater Manchester MPs who are asked to write opinion columns for the Trinity Mirror-owned Manchester Evening News each Monday. Last week was my slot, and, given that the

3 Dec 2012 : Column 634

Leveson report was due to be published, I thought it appropriate to comment on the inquiry and give my opinion. How ironic, then, that the

Manchester Evening News

refused to print my personal views on press regulation, because it did not think my opinions were appropriate—or, rather, because they were not in line with Trinity Mirror Group’s opinion. So much for the press commitment to free speech!

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): In which case, should that paper be punished?

Mr Leech: I am not for one second suggesting the newspaper should be punished. I am merely suggesting that it is rather ironic for a newspaper publisher bleating about free speech not to allow an opinion to be published in its newspaper, in what is supposed to be an opinion piece by an MP from the local area.

Is the proposed system a slippery slope to state regulation? Newspapers are suggesting that a future Government could legislate further and introduce state control. That is a red herring. A future Government could start the process from scratch and introduce state control. However, setting out the independence of the regulator in law actually makes it more difficult to introduce state control, because the independence of the regulator will already be enshrined in law.

Opponents also argue that Leveson’s model of regulation would not have stopped the hacking and the serious criminal behaviour. That is certainly true, but if proper independent regulation had been there in the first place, newspapers would never have built up a culture of invulnerability and an attitude that they could do whatever they wanted. While an independent regulator would not have directly stopped criminality, I believe it would have stopped the culture that resulted in that criminality.

Finally, I return to my first point about the debate being about the innocent victims. If we implement the Leveson recommendations, can we seriously look the victims in the eye? The answer is clearly yes, we can. I fear that without Leveson, we cannot.

Mr Raab: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Leech: I will not.

Last week Leveson called time at the last chance saloon. The new bar for the press must be a free house—free of the press and free of the politicians. Leveson’s recommendations would achieve that, and we need to get on and implement them.

6.15 pm

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): I have a registered interest, including in respect of News International. My family are in receipt of damages from News International, and I am also a key witness in a forthcoming trial. I have been a victim, but I will not go through the details tonight, because anything I experienced was as nothing compared with what happened in the very high-profile cases involving missing children and the death of children, and it would be unthinkable to draw any comparison. In any case, I have eschewed making any remarks publicly about what happened to me in order not to rerun what happened, for the sake of the people who were involved and were closest to me.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 635

Suffice it to say, on a slightly lighter note, that in more than 50 cases I succeeded in getting retractions, and I was able to get some limited redress. However, as Lord Leveson pointed out, that was because I could afford to go to law. In most cases, I was unable to get any redress through the Press Complaints Commission. On 20 August 2008 The Guardian published a diary piece which said my lawyers were the fastest in the west and mentioned Sky TV, Mirror Group and News International, all major media organisations with which I have had dealings over the last eight years, and which have had to apologise or cough up in one way or another. None of what happened was edifying, however, and I would not want anybody to go through what I went through.

In some respects, what happened was more to do with morality and decent professional standards than with regulation. As well as all the print newspapers, I had a right time with Channel 4 over More4. Ofcom was equally useless. I had a real problem with the BBC, too, which reported that guns and drugs had been found in my house—the story was not about me at all, of course—and that I had been partying with a high-profile woman all night who then attacked her husband, when in fact I had left her at 6.15 after having had a cup of tea.

All of us in public life face such situations, of course. What we are now trying to do—and what I hope we will be able to do—is achieve something very much better for people who do not have the same opportunity of redress that I had, or who have never stood for public office or put themselves on the line in that way.

I want tonight to address what happened pre-Leveson and where we should go post-Leveson, about which I have not spoken since Thursday afternoon. As has been said, pre-Leveson there was some hyberbole, and many things were said on all sides that upped the ante. The Leveson recommendations are different from what people expected, however, and so much so that as Shami Chakrabarti moves one way, I am moving the other. On hearing her this morning, I was slightly confused about quite where she was, and I was also confused tonight about quite where the Secretary of State was.

I think that those who have taken different sides on this matter are so close together that if we take a step back, we will find a way forward. The Secretary of State has indicated that if the media do not accept in full the Leveson principles in respect of the establishment of the independent regulator—the board—the Government will be prepared to act. I presume that means that the Government will take legal steps. If they are prepared to do that, and as the official Opposition and the minority coalition partner have already indicated that they would be prepared to act, we appear to have, across the coalition and the Opposition, a stated principled position that when media representatives meet the Secretary of State tomorrow, they will have to agree to the full Leveson principles in relation to the new independent regulator.

That brings us not so much to underpinning as to oversight, because not only do we have to establish some way of providing the panel that will appoint the independent regulator, which could perhaps be done through the Commissioner for Public Appointments—a

3 Dec 2012 : Column 636

key recommendation—but we then need to translate whatever that panel might be into an oversight recognition body that will actually be able to take the annual report from the independent regulator and assess whether that regulator is standing up to its own laid down code and standards.

I am against that oversight body being Ofcom, partly because it is a regulator. I was trying to work out in my head over the weekend how to ensure that we do not have a regulator of a regulator, because otherwise we will have regulation. Ofcom is a regulator, so let us try to find another mechanism as an oversight and recognition body that is so light touch that not even the most vehement opponent of what Leveson was supposedly going to say could now believe that Leveson’s actual requirements and recommendations take us down the road of the statutory regulation of the press. Clearly, they do not.

There are major issues around data protection which I am sure can be negotiated, with solutions found. If we can get to a point where everyone is agreed on the principles that have been laid down for the independent regulator, which is actually independent, and on a mechanism for getting the membership of that body in place, we can then ensure that we have the oversight that is necessary and that people in this House seek. There would then be a chance that we might have cracked it.

I do not have a final answer; as the child said, “Mother, if God made us, who made God?” I have been struggling with that question ever since I was a Methodist in Sunday school, but we are going to have a find a solution to it, one way or the other. I think it is possible to do so with good will, but there has not been a lot of good will. I have been as careful as I can in what I have written and spoken about, and I am now convinced that we can avoid underpinning through that oversight. However, that will take people sitting down in the next few weeks and being prepared to bury the hatchet and put behind them what was said prior to last Thursday. If we can do that, we will have achieved a great deal, and not on our behalf and not in terms of revenge. Looking back over our shoulder and seeking revenge is not like sending an e-mail; it actually rebounds on us. That is why I have not, in any way, been bitter about what has happened to me, because we have to get on with life, rather than constantly reflect on the past.

At the moment, we live in a emotional, retro society, where we are very much looking over our shoulders to the misdemeanours and catastrophes of the past. I am therefore simply making a plea tonight that we pick up Leveson, deal with those things we can agree on and move on to the future. We will thus retain an independent, vigorous, sometimes extremely aggravating and sometimes unpleasant media, but we will do so with the kind of oversight that will protect people, by their own code and their own lights, from the kind of horrors that have been demonstrated in front of the Leveson inquiry.

6.23 pm

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): I, too, begin by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I receive remuneration for a regular column in PR Week—but hon. Members will realise that that has not had any influence on my opinions on these matters.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 637

A number of hon. Members have alluded to the long history of failure on this issue. I am conscious that I have only 10 minutes in which to speak, but I do wish to reflect on some of that history because the House has not always been very good at learning from the mistakes of the past. This story begins in 1949, with the first royal commission advocating the setting up of a royal commission and saying that Parliament should do something about the issue. Four years later nothing had happened, so the Labour MP C.J. Simmons, a former journalist, introduced a private Member’s Bill, which forced the industry to say that it would now act. In withdrawing his Bill, he said:

“I give warning here and now that if it fails some of us will again have to come forward with a Measure similar to this Bill.”—[Official Report, 8 May 1953; Vol. 515, c. 806.]

In 1962, a second royal commission told the press that it needed to toughen up self-regulation:

“We think that the Press should be given another opportunity itself voluntarily to establish an authoritative General Council…We recommend, however, that the government should specify a time limit after which legislation would be introduced.”

In 1977, there was a third royal commission on the press, after more failure. It said:

“We recommend that the press should be given one final chance to prove that voluntary self-regulation can be made to work.”

Let us fast-forward to 1990 and the Calcutt committee. At the time we were told:

“This is positively the last chance for the industry to establish an effective non-statutory system of regulation”.—[Official Report, 21 June 1990; Vol. 174, c. 1126.]

In 1993, the Calcutt review said that the Press Complaints Commission was not effective and recommended a tribunal backed in statute.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I wonder whether my hon. Friend could describe the problems that these great reviews were looking at. We now look back at what was happening in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and, in particular, the ‘70s, when my father was editing a national newspaper, as great examples of fine newspaper work, so what were these commissions dealing with? Is it not actually unnecessary to keep on quoting from these reports, because there was not a real problem in those days?

George Eustice: Each and every one of those commissions and inquiries was sparked by the abuse of unaccountable power, and I would say that that is what we are seeing today. People sometimes say, “It was a newspaper that exposed phone hacking.” They are right—one newspaper exposed phone hacking—but Lord Leveson is very clear on this: none of the other papers exposed it, and there was almost a conspiracy of silence. He says:

“There were what are now said to be rumours and jokes about the extent to which phone hacking was rife throughout the industry, but (with one sole exception) the press did nothing to investigate itself or to expose conduct which”,

if it had involved anybody else,

“would have been subject to the most intense spotlight that journalists could bring to bear”.

That one exception was Nick Davies from The Guardian, who wrote a story on 9 July 2009 saying that the huge scale of the settlements being paid to some people in respect of phone hacking suggested that a cover-up had taken place. What did the Press Complaints Commission

3 Dec 2012 : Column 638

do about it? Did it then think, “Perhaps we should take a second look at this and investigate it”? No, it did not. As Lord Leveson points out, the PCC “condemned the Guardian” for running the story, which is extraordinary. I think that the Leveson report was a good report.

Mr Lilley: My hon. Friend has criticised the press for the fact that insufficient of them exposed hacking, but can he confirm that the Leveson report—if implemented in full, as he supposes—would not have stopped this sort of hacking, and would not expose it and would not have powers to do so, as Lord Leveson makes absolutely clear? So what is the relevance of my hon. Friend’s argument?

George Eustice: I do not think Lord Leveson does make that clear. The new body that he recommends would have powers of investigation, and that would deal with the culture which led to this criminality.

The central recommendation of Lord Leveson’s report, which we must not lose sight of, is this:

“In order to give effect to the incentives that I have outlined, it is essential”—

not preferable or helpful but essential—

“that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system”.

I agree with Lord Leveson on that, because throughout his inquiry one question simply would not go away: how do we make a reality of independent self-regulation without some kind of underpinning in statute? In other words, “How do you create the incentives to be part of a body that can fine you and deliver stiff penalties against you?” There was no question but that Lord Hunt and Lord Black failed to answer that test. At one point, Lord Black was suggesting that we could perhaps restrict membership of the Press Association and that people who did not sign up to this new body could be denied access to Government briefings or to accreditation for events. That would be very much a closed shop system, which Lord Leveson completely rejects.

The truth is that to make this work we will need some kind of statute, because the contract system outlined by Lord Hunt would be inherently unstable. It was suggested that the contracts should last for no more than five years, but such contracts, which require what the legal profession calls a constant supervision, are very difficult to enforce in a court. After five years, newspapers would walk away from that system and we would be in the same boat as we are in now.

If the industry has failed to come up with an answer that does not require statute after 18 months of thinking about it, what does the Secretary of State think that it will come up with in the next six weeks? I am deeply sceptical that it will come up with an answer.

Alun Cairns: My hon. Friend and other colleagues have made much about the need for a change of culture, but does he not accept that we cannot legislate for that? Culture must be dealt with by agreement from all parties.

George Eustice: I agree and I am coming on to that point. We will deal with the culture by having a credible regulator, not by saying that the police should be kicking down the doors of newsrooms as a matter of routine.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 639

Let me tackle some of the myths. The Prime Minister said that by introducing such legislation, we would be crossing a Rubicon. As many other Members have pointed out, that argument is incorrect. We already have a Defamation Bill going through this Parliament that has cross-party support and even the support of the press. If the principle of legislation is in itself inimical to liberty and freedom, where were the freedom fighters when that Bill was going through? It was passed on Second Reading without even a Division.

Section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 refers to freedom of speech so, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) pointed out, such a provision has already been accepted. Some say that mentioning the idea of freedom of speech in a Bill compromises it because a future statute could take it away, but we already have it in the Human Rights Act. The US has the first amendment, which is a statute that protects freedom of speech. The Government rejected the same argument when they introduced the Bill that became the European Union Act 2011, when many Government Members said that a sovereignty clause meant losing one’s sovereignty. The argument was not accepted at that time and we should not accept it now.

Some say introducing legislation would be too difficult and far too complicated. I had a look back at the original private Member’s Bill introduced by C. J. Simmons, the Labour MP and journalist, and it is just six pages long. It is very simple and merely sets up a body, which is broadly what we are suggesting now. A couple of weeks ago, we had the Second Reading of the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, which is just 16 pages long and performs a similar function—in fact, it is a more statutory Bill than we would need in this case. I shall be on the Public Bill Committee and I am told that it will be very short. The Defamation Bill, which is very complicated, was no more than 32 pages long. I do not accept that introducing legislation is too difficult.

Some say that such questions are for the birds in the age of the internet and things are difficult because blogs can do whatever they like. I fundamentally disagree with that argument. The changes coming from the internet mean that it is vital for this House to revisit the legislation. Just as some internet news sites, such as The Huffington Post, have already opted to be part of the PCC, if we could get the incentives right under a new body, we could get online credible news organisations wanting to be part of the kitemark system because it would give them protection. By enacting legislation, we would create the incentives that would enable internet-only news sites to take part.

As Lord Leveson points out, we should not encourage a system in which the newspapers engage in a race to the bottom with blogs that have no credibility. If newspapers are to survive, they must carve out a new role for themselves—they need a niche and some additional credibility. Just as people expect of broadcasters a different standard and character of journalism from that which they expect of newspapers, we should reach a situation in which people expect a different character and standard of journalism in newspapers from that which they might get on some blog sites. I do not accept the argument about that, either.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 640

Some say that all we really need is for the police to do their job. It is curious that those who say that the statutory underpinning about which I am talking would lead to a chilling effect on journalism go on effectively to advocate a system that requires the police to kick down the doors of newsrooms, launch dawn raids and arrest journalists almost as a matter of routine. We should not be comfortable with the fact that dozens of journalists will face trial next year. We as a House must recognise that there was a culture in the press that enabled those crimes to take place. We should not collude in the argument that it was just a few journalists and that we should just lock up a few people from The Sun; we must recognise that there was a failure in the culture that we must tackle.

Let me finish by recommending a way forward to those on the Government Front Bench. Lord Leveson says that the ball is now in the politicians’ court. My view is that since any Bill would fundamentally be about freedom of speech, we should have a free vote. To use some of the terminology that I have read so often over the past few weeks, I think that it would be wrong for Parliament to be muzzled or gagged. We should have a free vote. I am conscious that many Members of this House have a strong ideological objection to the idea of any form of statute and they should have the right to have their say in a free vote, but Parliament should also be allowed to reach a rational and measured conclusion on the recommendations of Lord Leveson’s report.

I recommend that we accommodate the Prime Minister’s wish to give the industry six weeks to come up with a proposal. After that six weeks, we should have a free vote in Parliament to decide whether to introduce a Bill in the next Session. That motion should be binding and if Parliament as a whole believes we need some kind of new Bill, we should enact one in the next Session. I must stress that that would not necessarily mean taking forward everything in the Leveson report. I know that there are concerns about Ofcom, so let us see whether we can find a way around that. There are concerns about data protection, so we could exclude some of those elements. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) mentioned concerns about the scope for third party complaints, so perhaps we could limit that scope to systemic problems in newspapers rather than individual stories or concepts. There are ways around all the problems, but I am certain that we need statutory underpinning to make self-regulation work.

6.36 pm

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): It gives me great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and I commend him for his wise and courageous speech. I suspect that his views, like mine, have been influenced by the evidence he heard as a member of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions.

I shall confine my remarks to politics—it might sound like a novel idea, but we are politicians and there is a political context to this question—not least because the merits of Lord Leveson’s report have been well expressed by other hon. Members on both sides of the House. In that context, I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State say in response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) that the Government would legislate if she and the Government

3 Dec 2012 : Column 641

felt that the press were dragging their feet and not implementing Leveson. That poses the question of whether that would include the underpinning—that is, whether she would be satisfied if the press were implementing Leveson even without the underpinning—and it might be helpful if the Minister who responds could clarify that as well as the time frame the Government are imagining. The hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth mentioned six weeks and that sounds to me like a very sensible time frame, but it would be helpful for all Members if the Government could provide some clarification about the speed with which they expect the press to move and, failing that, when they would expect to introduce legislation.

I think it is assumed that as a politician I carry with me a fair degree of cynicism, but I admit to having felt surprised and disappointed by the Prime Minister’s response last Thursday to Lord Justice Leveson’s report when the ink was hardly dry on it. I was one of many Members who applauded the Prime Minister when he established the Leveson inquiry. I felt reassured by him when he looked into the eyes of the victims and promised to implement it if it was not bonkers. Four days on from publication of the report, I have not heard any explanation from the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State of what it is about the report that they think is bonkers. That can only lead me to question why the Prime Minister set up the inquiry in the first place, only to reject its central recommendation.

Alun Cairns: That criticism surely also applies to the Leader of the Opposition, who after just three or four hours accepted the almost 2,000-page document in its entirety. Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that that was somewhat political?

Mr Bradshaw: No, what my right hon. Friend accepted was the central tenet of Lord Leveson’s recommendations, which was that it was essential that whatever happened had statutory underpinning.

There are only two possible explanations for the Prime Minister’s cursory dismissal of Lord Leveson’s recommendations, having set up that inquiry. One is that he never thought that some sort of statutory underpinning would form part of the learned judge’s recommendations. If that was the case, may I suggest that the Prime Minister was naive, ill-informed or both? It was perfectly clear to anybody following the evidence of the inquiry, particularly that of the victims and expert witnesses, and from the questions that Lord Leveson posed to the industry, that some sort of statutory underwriting, underpinning or oversight—whatever one wants to call it—of a new independent regulatory body was the very likely outcome.

The only other explanation and, I am afraid, in my view the more probable one is that the Prime Minister has been persuaded by representatives of the press—in another example of the very problem that the Leveson report also addresses—that there should be no statutory underpinning, and that the Prime Minister has taken the view that he would rather put up with a few short-lived howls of dismay from the victims and others than with the daily and unforgiving hostility of the newspapers from now until polling day. If that is the case, it is very depressing and exactly what happened after all the previous inquiries into press standards and regulation.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 642

The press have appealed time and again for one more chance, for more time to put their own house in order. They have strung out the process. Most of the politicians and most of the public have lost interest. If this is the calculation made by the Prime Minister and Lord Leveson’s opponents in the press, I believe they are profoundly wrong. First, this time the victims are not going to go away. They are not toe-sucking Ministers, but completely ordinary members of the public—yes, and some celebrities too—whose lives have been trashed. They are numerous, organised and angry, and they enjoy widespread public support.

Secondly, whatever the press do now—we all know that for the next year or so they will behave reasonably well, exactly as they have done after previous inquiries, only to revert sooner or later to their bad old ways—the issue of press standards and regulation is not going to fade from the public eye, because from next year and probably right up until the general election, some of those allegedly responsible for the most egregious abuse will be on criminal trial. Day in and day out we will be reminded by the courts of the behaviour that caused the Prime Minister to establish the inquiry in the first place, and we will be reminded of the repeated failure of the political class to do anything about it. Do the Prime Minister and the Government really want to find themselves in a position where they stand accused by the victims and others of having failed to implement the recommendations of the very inquiry they set up to address these problems?

The Prime Minister may feel that he has had a few supportive headlines and columns in the newspapers since Thursday, but the context may be very different in a year or so. He may think he has been clever now, but he may not look so clever in a year or so. I hope the Secretary of State can persuade the Prime Minister and her sceptical colleagues in the Government to rejoin the consensus. She said that she wanted political consensus, but does she not realise that it was the Prime Minister’s response to Leveson on Thursday that broke the political consensus in the House in support of Leveson’s recommendation of statutory underpinning? I hope she will use her powers of persuasion to bring the Prime Minister back into that political consensus so that we can implement Leveson, and soon.

Angie Bray: Is it also possible that the Prime Minister was simply saying that it is far too complicated to rush into something and say that we need to adopt it in its entirety within about two hours of having seen it? If we are to be responsible about this, it needs to be considered very carefully. Might it be possible that rather than playing politics, the Prime Minister was trying to do something statesmanlike and responsible?

Mr Bradshaw: I was in the House when the Prime Minister made his statement. He was categorical in his opposition to statutory underpinning. If he had had an open mind, or if he had felt he needed a few more days or weeks to consider the recommendations, he would not have been so categorical in his rejection of the central tenet of what Lord Leveson says will be essential for the new system to work. That is why I question the Prime Minister’s motives.

As the former Prime Minister, John Major, put it in his evidence to Lord Leveson, when he was stressing the importance of all-party support for whatever Lord Leveson’s inquiry recommended,

3 Dec 2012 : Column 643

“if one party breaks off and decides it’s going to seek future favour with powerful proprietors and press barons by opposing it”—

that is, Lord Leveson’s report—

“then it will be very difficult for it to be carried into law . . . So I think there is an especial responsibility on the leaders of the three major parties. . . on this occasion it’s the politicians who are in the last-chance saloon.”

I could not have put it better myself.

6.45 pm

Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): I start by paying tribute to Lord Leveson, his staff and those who facilitated the process. The report is a magnificent piece of work, professionally undertaken. I appreciate the words in the report, in which he clearly rules out any wrongdoing by my party and the Murdoch group. He draws a line and rejects the smears on the former Culture Secretary. I raise that right at the beginning, because much of this debate is about redress. Time and again, there were smears on the party of which I am a member and on the former Culture Secretary without redress, yet some days after publication, I have not heard a hint of an apology from the Opposition.

I put on record my deepest respect for the victims of much of the media wrongdoing. They have been extremely dignified. It took great courage to go into that arena, which for many of them is not a normal place of work, and speak publicly.

I am concerned about the idea of creating laws to regulate the free press in this country. I used to be a tutor in communications. The idea of a free press holding politicians to account is a cornerstone of democracy. The idea of us politicians creating a piece of legislation and then regulating ourselves in some way is extremely dangerous and undermines democracy.

I expect the leaders of all parties to attempt to find a solution. As was pointed out earlier, it is strange that having picked up a 2,000-page document—some 1.4 million words—the Leader of the Opposition wholeheartedly accepted all that in one go, within a couple of hours. That is not a considered approach. The Prime Minister did not reject the report outright. He said that he had concerns about it and that he wanted to consider it and to facilitate a debate. The idea that one party has moved out of the debate is as ridiculous as the Leader of the Opposition accepting 1.4 million words in a report that he had acquired a couple of hours before.

It is important that we create a body that holds the press to account and gives full redress to victims of its often disgraceful behaviour. I want to give an example in which I saw first hand some of the behaviour of the media. Back in 2000 I was chair of social services in Bradford. One day I received a phone call saying that the News of the World had been watching a house and had a story in which it had identified individuals, including a grandmother, who were prostituting the children in the house. This was on a Friday and the newspaper wanted a statement from us.

We gave a statement, and then we wanted to know where the children were. The News of the World refused to give us the address on the basis that the article was an exclusive, and if it gave us the address, the exclusive would be lost and other newspapers would get the story,

3 Dec 2012 : Column 644

on which it had spent a considerable amount of money and time. I rang up the deputy editor or the acting editor at the time and said, “These are children we’re talking about, and you’re talking about money and profit. I want the address. You don’t have to give it to me—give it to a police officer or whoever, but we want this.” We had some banter about that and I said, “If you don’t, I will ring every newspaper up and tell them you’ve got an exclusive, and that effectively you are allowing the potential continuation of the rape of children just to maintain that exclusive.” Within a short period of time they rang the police and we got the details, but it was an awful situation.

The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) mentioned professional behaviour. The example I have given was one of immoral and deeply unprofessional behaviour by the individuals concerned, but we cannot legislate for immoral behaviour. What we can do is address the management and challenge it. It is that failure that I think needs to be challenged. However, I do not think that those children would have been found had it not been for the newspaper’s excellent investigative work. My concern is that we could create something that will somehow stifle really good investigative work of the type that helped those children out of that terrible situation. It is the same investigative attitude that addressed the issue of MPs’ expenses.

A few months ago, a political correspondent for national TV collared me and asked how the Leveson inquiry was going down in my constituency. I said, “To be honest, the vast majority of people out there already thought that newspapers were corrupt.” The fact that the newspapers were hacking, bribing people and following dodgy practices was nothing new to them. We might be obsessed with it, but it is not the subject of pub talk, because people already have a very low opinion of newspapers. Indeed, the only group of people they have a lower opinion of is us, so the idea that we are going to create a regulatory body to look over the people they already have a low opinion of is a little self-indulgent on our part. That will not give the public confidence. This is about addressing the unprofessional behaviour of newspapers and ensuring that an independent body is in place.

George Eustice: On the basis of my hon. Friend’s analysis, does he think that the House is wrong to take action to curb corrupt practices in banks, for instance?

Kris Hopkins: As was said earlier, much legislation has been put in place to deal with that, yet banks are still engaged in corrupt practices. Legislation is already in place to address all the issues that have been raised, whether intrusion, hacking, bribery or the police being too close to journalists. What we have to do is give prosecutors the confidence to pursue those issues, because we politicians have been somewhat concerned about not upsetting the newspapers and have not been using the legislation already in place to pursue those individuals.

Mr Raab: If journalists hack phones, they should go to jail. The problem in this instance is not the law, because a two-year sentence is already available, and it can be much higher if the offence amounts to perverting the course of justice. The problem is with

3 Dec 2012 : Column 645

securing witnesses, evidence and convictions. Is my hon. Friend disappointed that the Leveson report says so little about how to address the prosecutorial deficit?

Kris Hopkins: To be honest, I am not sure whether that was within the Leveson inquiry’s remit. The party leaders have a responsibility to come together to find some solution that will make this work, and I think that there is a meeting of minds on the vast majority of this, as other Members have said. It will take maturity by the players to find a solution that will make it work.

A few Members have referred to new media. We are addressing this issue, but I think that we are focusing too narrowly on newspapers. As everyone knows, new media, digital media, the internet and other forms of communication will outstrip newspapers. My local newspaper’s website has thousands of hits, possibly more than the number of newspapers it sells, so we are going to see a real change. There are exceptions, but there is very little regulation and few ways of managing or curbing from one country practices that are part of a global phenomenon. We will have to attempt to bring together many nations to address some of those issues. That is where the greater debate is, but we are slightly obsessed with the newspapers.

Finally, on “The Politics Show” yesterday Andrew Neil said that this issue raises the disturbing prospect of former spin doctors, who are known for their ability to sex up the odd document or two, becoming chairs of Ofcom and effectively being appointed by the Government. That is one of my concerns about the regulator and where this will go. The idea that the completely undermined tabloid press will now be orchestrated by Tory or Labour spin doctors who are appointed by Government will not give the public confidence. I want to see massive fines. I want it to be easier for individuals to seek redress and for the people who lie about them and put mistruths out there to be punished. I want an independent body.

Tomorrow is a big day for the newspapers. They should come to the table, because they have been offered the opportunity to make this work. If they fail, I am afraid that they will have damned themselves. Newspapers, both the broadsheets and the tabloids, play a massive part in British society. The tabloids have an important role. They are being given an opportunity to come to the table and they have a responsibility to take it. I do not want statutory legislation to be put in place. I think it would seriously undermine democracy in this country.

6.56 pm

Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Ind): I have listened carefully to what hon. Members have said. I have no strongly formed views on what is being proposed that I cannot change in most respects. I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and believe that there is room for considerably more compromise than we have seen in the first few days since the Leveson report was published. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) pretty much summed up my approach to the whole business, which is that I would really like us to avoid statutory legislation. My instinct is that the distinction between statutory underpinning and statutory legislation is pretty much angels dancing on the head of a pin, regardless of what learned Members of this House might say.

3 Dec 2012 : Column 646

Confining myself to a narrower matter in the report, one thing that struck me was paragraph 72 of the executive summary, in which Leveson states:

“What would the legislation achieve? Three things. First, it would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press.”

Yesterday’s edition of The Observer referred to that as being much like the first amendment to the US constitution. Of course, it is nothing like it. There is no real comparison. Any party of Government in future could readily change a law. It could scrap it or, more worryingly, tighten it up with a simple whipped majority if it was unhappy with how it stood. The first amendment is set within an entirely different constitutional structure, as changing it would require the support of 75% of the state legislatures and a two-thirds majority, so there is no possibility that a constitutional amendment could be overturned as readily as could a statute underpinning press freedom in this place. Indeed—let us be absolutely honest—there are Members who would say that if what we do now is not to our liking, when we are in government we can do something different.

Therefore, it is no more meaningful to compare such legislation to the first amendment than it is to compare it to anything else; it is simply inaccurate. I was surprised that The Observer, a newspaper for which I otherwise have great respect, published that yesterday, because it over-blows the proposal. I was concerned that Lord Justice Leveson hinted knowingly at the overblown idea that his proposals are like the first amendment, because that has implications for how we sell the idea of a free press to nations abroad. I have had quite a lot of contact with countries—not all of them heinous and hideous non-democracies—where the press and its relationship with government is fairly complex. Press freedom is very fragile in these places.

We have heard from learned Members of this House that statutory underpinning is very different from statutory regulation. The Leveson report said that ultimately the regulation of the regulator would be done by an organisation that is described on its own website as the office of the independent regulator. Of course this is about regulation—the clue is in the name. Whether it was arm’s-length regulation or direct regulation—which Leveson allows for in the case of organisations such as The Spectator, which has said that it would not sign up to the voluntary option—we would have, to all intents and purposes, what people in fragile democracies abroad would see as state regulation.

If this does not sound too grand, it is worth my saying what I think about the nature of freedom and how Leveson, with great respect to him, refers to it. When papers such as The Observer compare his proposals to the first amendment and say that they are about protecting and enshrining the rights of a free press, they make a fundamental mistake. In the UK, we do not have a written constitution. We do not have politicised Supreme Court judges; they are appointed by political leaders because it is acknowledged up front that some judgments will be politically based. In the UK, we can do anything we like provided that it is not illegal or unlawful. If I want to go walking or climbing in Scotland, I have complete freedom, within the constraints of some aspects of criminal law and trespass, to do that. If someone said they were going to pass a piece of legislation to enshrine my right to do it, I would be somewhat

3 Dec 2012 : Column 647

sceptical and look at what the imperatives were. In some people’s eyes, it might be perfectly legitimate to legislate to reduce the number of deaths on the hills or to protect the environment. Whatever the circumstances, such legislation would ultimately be directed at making a compromise about my freedom and my access to the hills, because that is what we do when we legislate.

If we choose to legislate where there is no existing legislation on things that we are free to do, as the press is free at the moment, we have to accept a compromise. I believe that Leveson is proposing statutory regulation, however light touch, by Ofcom—again, the clue is in the name—or perhaps another organisation of the great and the good. We hear a great deal about the great and the good being impartial and apolitical. I have big questions about their values and the fact that they do not intervene in what they have themselves decided, but that is a different matter. Fundamentally, if we want a free press and choose to enshrine that freedom in legislation, as Lord Leveson has suggested, then we have to accept a compromise, just as we do when we make any legislation that constrains our freedom to do what we want provided that it is not illegal or unlawful.

7.3 pm

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): It is incredible that we find ourselves rising in Parliament to debate the fundamental issue of press freedom centuries after politicians gave up their role in controlling the press. Obviously, I know why we are here, but none the less it is rather depressing. I appreciate that Lord Justice Leveson is at pains to say that his report does not recommend state regulation, but I sometimes wonder what’s in a name. We should remind ourselves that we are here partly because of actual lawbreaking and some outrageous behaviour by certain members of the press. Understandably, there are innocent victims who want to see changes to ensure that such breaches cannot happen again and that there is proper redress for victims in future, but are we in danger of shifting too far in our response?

Like many others as the media storm was brewing over the past few weeks, I feared that Lord Justice Leveson would recommend nothing short of full-on state regulation of one of this country’s finest traditions—our free press. On first appearance, his recommendations were less draconian than I had feared, and I recognise that they were arrived at after much agonised deliberation over exactly what role, if any, the state should play in regulating the press. Finally, in unveiling his proposals, Lord Justice Leveson placed heavy emphasis on the need for an independent regime and stressed the need to make any new body voluntary but, crucially, with sufficient incentives so that all publications would sign up—so perhaps only technically voluntary.