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Press Complaints

3.9 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden rose to call attention to the case for instituting a statutory means by which complaints against abuses by the press can be resolved, possibly through an independent ombudsman service; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. This is not a further contribution to the debate about whether there should be a privacy law. It is about power and the misuse of that unrestricted power.

I share the widespread feeling that in recent years the amount of press intrusion into private lives has reached an unacceptable level. I am sure that I am not alone in feeling disgust at the use of bugged, intimate telephone conversations to hold up individuals to scorn and ridicule. I refer particularly to the use made of the so called "Squidgy" and "Camillagate" tapes affecting members of the Royal Family. It is revolting, but it is believed to sell newspapers.

Since the tragic death of Princess Diana, there has been some indication of an intention not to misbehave, and in that connection I commend the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, who I am pleased to see is participating in the debate, in introducing a new and tougher press code. The problem is that these admirable provisions are likely to count for little once a sensational story has been sensed. My Motion was drafted and

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published before the Christmas Recess. I really do wonder what the press has learnt. Would the press have bothered to entrap a young teenager in an alleged cannabis deal had his father not been a prominent politician? I believe that there was an entrapment, otherwise why were tapes used? We have to remember that the 1993 Act was introduced to protect children and young people. It is surely part of the code that the law should be upheld. If that protection does not exist when the parent or guardian is well known, because there is then a "public interest" justification, one has to ask what the code or Act are worth.

It is of course fashionable in some quarters to blame the decline in press standards on the tabloids, but in many ways "respectable" broadsheets are just as culpable; perhaps more so, because of the "holier than thou" attitude some of them adopt. Some of them, in what they claim to be investigative journalism, adopt tactics which certainly appear to breach the code and in some respects resemble those of a private KGB. There is the "demonisation" of individuals who are targeted, reliance on informers--sometimes paid, sometimes simply activated by malice--attempted entrapment, sometimes including "honey traps", surveillance, bugging, people are followed and harassed and neighbours are encouraged to gossip. And all in pursuit of "stories", the more scandalous the better.

All those tactics have been used against individuals in recent years, the excuse being that it is in the public interest. Some journalists are honest enough to admit that there are problems for individuals. In a recent article which appeared after the death of Princess Diana, when many in the media were feeling unusually contrite, a journalist writing in the Independent stated:

    "The libel laws in the country are stringent, thorough and powerful...but for all practical purposes they are not available to royals or commoners. Princesses do not stoop to sue for libel--commoners cannot afford to do so".

The article then outlines the type of costs a plaintiff is likely to be on risk for; perhaps as much as £500,000 in a defended case, which could continue for some time. The article goes on:

    "Faced with these figures, which spell ruin, most ordinary people who are mistreated, misrepresented and mangled in the papers realise that they are powerless to get recompense and they creep away...Newspaper proprietors, editors, journalists and their house lawyers understand the reality of that in their bones...It is an unwritten law of much newspaper life that you can say anything you like about a person who has no money--what are they going to do about it?--but you must check every word and dilute every criticism you print about such men as Robert Maxwell, Sir James Goldsmith and Mohammed Al Fayed".

Of course, that is clearly true. Nothing was printed to the discredit of Robert Maxwell until he was dead. And as for Mohammed Al Fayed, one cannot help but contrast the press treatment of him--at least until recently--with the demonisation of the parliamentarians he is alleged to have bribed. If they were guilty, so was he, but you would not have thought so from the press reports.

It so happens that I have some knowledge of and therefore an interest in this latter affair, which became known as "Cash for Questions". I believe that it was largely a media stunt, but it had a devastating effect

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upon a number of people innocently caught up in it. I was, as many Members of your Lordships' House will know, a non-executive director of the lobbying and public relations firm, Ian Greer Associates, between 1991 and 1996. That was the firm at the centre of the affair. At the time I joined the board, IGA had a good reputation and a prestigious client list. Of course, my interest was properly declared. The company had members of all political parties and of none among its directors and staff.

However, in 1994 a campaign initiated by the Guardian newspaper began. It included an attempted entrapment operation and culminated in the allegation, printed on 20th October 1994, that IGA paid two named Members of the other place £2,000 a time to ask Questions in a campaign on behalf of Mr. Al Fayed. The details are well known, I believe. Proceedings for libel were commenced and then, I think unwisely, discontinued for a complex series of reasons, but certainly not because there was truth in the allegations. It was a mistake to commence proceedings and then discontinue because this gave rise to a veritable media frenzy.

It was that media frenzy in which I was caught up. It occurred during the conference of my party in 1996 when the media decided to concentrate upon me. I denied that I had been a party to any decision to bribe MPs and called for an independent inquiry. Even if there had been substance in the allegations--which there was not--they all related to a time a number of years before I became a director.

It was clear, however, that the media frenzy was an embarrassment to my party and I was therefore not surprised when I was asked to stand down from the Front Bench, which I accordingly did. The party issued a statement to the effect that I had done absolutely nothing wrong in my capacity as an IGA director, but that was not good enough for the press. What was wanted was a scandalous story and they therefore proceeded to hound me. As I left the train at Euston, I was almost knocked down by a mob of journalists and they were also laying seige to the offices of IGA where I took refuge because I did not want to go home.

The press frenzy lasted a few days. The stories were awful. I was everywhere described as "disgraced". The party's statement on my behalf was totally disregarded. Headlines screamed, "Disgraced Baroness slinks out of Blackpool under cover of darkness", as though I had been detected in doing something fraudulent. I went off to stay with relatives in the country to get out of the way. I was advised to say nothing; not to give interviews or to respond because that would simply prolong the story.

Friends and relatives were supportive, but some of the mud sticks: "There's no smoke without fire". People may not remember just what you are supposed to have done; simply that you have been involved in something unsavoury for which you had some responsibility. And of course it was all untrue.

We then had the inquiry under Sir Gordon Downey. He had no alternative, in the light of the documentary evidence, but to conclude that the two named Members

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of the other place did not receive cash from Mr. Al Fayed indirectly through IGA. So, no cash for Questions, but by that time the company had been hounded out of existence, Ian Greer had been ruined and all the staff lost their jobs. Was it in the public interest? I do not think so. It was in pursuit of a sensational story--and it did not matter what happened to the people caught up in it.

The firm was a legitimate one and had done absolutely nothing wrong and certainly nothing fraudulent. Much of the material published about it was preposterously untrue, but the "killer" allegation was "Cash for Questions" and that was shown to be false, but too late.

It was fortunate for me that I was at the end of my career rather than at the beginning. I am sure that otherwise I would have had difficulty in sustaining employment. And of course it is the modern version of the medieval stocks when alleged miscreants were put in the stocks for the populace to throw rubbish at them. There are the usual anonymous letters, and I was subjected to a rather peculiar form of continuous anonymous harassment which caused me to make a report to the police.

Those are the unlooked-for side-effects of such publicity. I was perhaps more fortunate than the two young women recently wrongly identified in the AIDS scare. One of them is reported to have had her windows broken and rubbish put through her letterbox. As I say, being pilloried in the press is the modern equivalent of the medieval stocks.

I know that nothing can be done about my case and I refer to it simply because it is based on direct personal experience. I know that there are no doubt other Members of your Lordships' House who have had hatchet jobs performed on them. I now believe that it would be very much better if alleged bribery of parliamentarians was an offence involving prosecution. That would be a great deal more fair than trial by media.

I was reminded of that just before Christmas when the Sunday newspaper I normally take ran a poll of its readership to ascertain the man and woman of the year and also the villain of the year. In view of the bad press he has had, I was not surprised that the former MP for Tatton, Neil Hamilton, featured among the villains, but it really made me wonder whether a section of the British reading public had lost its marbles to see that he apparently out-distanced in villainy none other than Saddam Hussein! Saddam Hussein was simply a runner-up in the villainy stakes. Then I realised that that helped to make my case about the extraordinary power of the media to manipulate the way in which we perceive events and people.

It would not be appropriate for me to comment much further on the Hamilton affair as it has been a matter for the other place. But I am concerned about the role of the press and there is no doubt in my mind that Hamilton was tried and found guilty by the media long before there was any inquiry. Moreover, one newspaper produced a book during the course of the inquiry with the quite specific intention of influencing the result. That confirms my view that a judicial process would be

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much fairer for everyone concerned, a judicial process in which all witnesses--I emphasise all witnesses--could be subjected to examination under oath and rigorous cross-examination.

To my mind at least the issue remains unresolved. I believe that others take a similar view. I was recently approached by two young television journalists who have become interested in the case. They have been working on an extremely detailed and comprehensive account which casts doubt on much of the so-called evidence and particularly calls into question the role of the Guardian newspaper in the affair; and I have a copy of the report here. It demonstrates conclusively that there are still investigative journalists who have the courage, occasionally, to challenge received opinion. I do not believe that we have heard the last of the matter.

As I said at the commencement of my speech, this is a debate about power. I do not seek to interfere with the rights of the press and, as I have indicated, I am not against investigative journalism. It has a great deal to its credit in the past. But I am concerned to achieve some form of independent redress for individuals who feel that they have been unfairly treated and consequently damaged.

I should like also to make the point very strongly that one does not sacrifice one's human rights--the right to privacy and the right not to be traduced and lied about--simply because one has opted to play a role at whatever level in public life. That should not of itself give the press the right to say what it likes in the name of public interest. Nor, as I have already made clear, is recourse to libel action a real possibility for everyone, even for someone with a public role. In many areas of life--the provision of financial services is one example, and there are others--an independent ombudsman service exists to deal with complaints. I am aware that the Press Complaints Commission exists but the presence of representatives of the press on it does not necessarily give the impression to the public of total independence.

Moreover, it seems to me that it sees its role as one of conciliation and, most importantly, it does not have the power, as some ombudsman schemes have, to award compensation. The idea of an ombudsman with powers to compensate is not new. It arose from the Calcutt Commission which reported in 1993 when there was also concern about the abuses of press power. I do not believe that there has been much, if any, improvement; quite the reverse. It is time to revisit the recommendations of Calcutt. My Lords, I beg to move For Papers.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Wakeham: My Lords, the whole House will be most grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this subject today. The noble Baroness has very strong views on the subject which I greatly respect. She speaks with conviction and knowledge from her experiences. I hope that she will understand why it would be somewhat difficult for me to comment in any detail on what she said in view of the position that I hold.

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However, I believe that there are some grave dangers associated with the ideas which she has put before your Lordships this afternoon, although they are perhaps not quite as serious as some of the dangers in relation to the proposals contained in the Human Rights Bill which is currently before the House.

There is already a body which is independent of the press and which seeks to resolve complaints; that is, the Press Complaints Commission of which I have been the independent chairman for three years. It does not rely on any statutory basis because in my view that would make it inaccessible for ordinary people. Statutory systems are legal systems and legal systems cannot produce redress without cost to ordinary people.

Cost is the crucial factor. Cost limits access, and it is easy access for ordinary people which is the greatest advantage of a voluntary system. But there are many more advantages of a voluntary system over a statutory one. To begin with, a voluntary body is not a regulatory body in the true sense of that word. Its main aim is not to punish offenders but to conciliate amicably and quickly disputes between a newspaper and an aggrieved individual. That is what is wanted by most people who complain and that simply would not happen under a legal system.

Of course, some disputes cannot be conciliated and in those circumstances there must be an adjudication. But that happens in only a handful of cases which come before the PCC each year. Most complaints can be and are resolved. Indeed, last year more were resolved than ever. Of those where there was a complaint to answer, nearly nine in 10 were resolved directly to the satisfaction of the person complaining. That is a very important and significant point.

I shall give your Lordships some further advantages of a voluntary system. In particular, it has produced a tough and effective code of practice which is framed for editors by editors and is supported by the entire newspaper industry. Again, that is an important point because it means that no editor will lightly ignore the code. That code seeks to raise standards in a number of areas--not just privacy and accuracy--and to give special protection to particularly vulnerable groups of people. Those include children, where there are very tough provisions, people being treated in hospitals, innocent friends of convicted criminals, those suffering at a time of grief or shock, victims of sexual assault, children in sex cases and intrusion into the privacy of the children of those in the public eye.

As I have already pointed out about the recent coverage of the son of the Home Secretary, the new code's rules in relation to the children of public figures worked fairly well until the law intervened. That made it impossible for self-regulation and the code to work. Obviously I must not comment on the substance of the case, but it was known widely that the identity of the boy was freely available up and down the country on the Internet. It was available also in many foreign publications. And so, not surprisingly, a judge very quickly allowed newspapers to join in. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, said at the time of the Spycatcher case in 1987:

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    "In the contemporary world of electronics and jumbo jets, news anywhere is news everywhere".

That is even more so today, 10 years on, and underlines to me the importance of voluntary self-restraint in these matters.

The simple position is that a statutory system will not be able to protect people but it is possible--and I say possible--that a self-regulatory system might. In that recent case, the newspapers did just that until the law intervened.

The voluntary code also contains rules on the ways in which news is gathered including harassment, witness payments, long-lens photography and subterfuge. There is more to a system based on co-operation than just the code. For example, it was a voluntary agreement which produced guidelines when the National Lottery was introduced in relation to the identification of winners wishing to remain anonymous, and because the guidelines were voluntary they have not been breached. It was self-regulation which, when Prince William started school at Eton, was able to give him the same protection at school as any other child in the land. Again, it is an arrangement which has worked extremely well and no unauthorised photographs of him have, to my knowledge, appeared in the British press.

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