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Mary Bell Case: Press Complaints

8.50 p.m.

Lord McNally rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what changes in procedure and liaison between the Home Office and the Press Complaints Commission have taken place following their respective inquiries into the circumstances surrounding press serialisation of Cries Unheard concerning the case of Mary Bell.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am extremely sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, is once again on the night shift, although I am extremely pleased to see him in his place. I am pleased also to see the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. There are not two men in public life whom I admire more than the two noble Lords and I hope what I have to say about their respective organisations is put in its proper context.

I want to open the debate by quoting from two distinguished journalists who specialise in commenting on the press. Brian MacArthur, writing in The Times on 1st May, had this to say about the press treatment of Mary Bell and her family in the spring of 1998:

Harsh words, indeed. But Mr. Roy Greenslade, writing in the Guardian on 23rd July 1998 following the Press Complaints Commission adjudication, wrote:

    "In siding with the editors who have published--and paid handsomely for--the stories of the convicted criminals, the Press Complaints Commission shows it is living in the real world".

Two journalists, both of whom I respect, and two different views: street of shame or the real world. It is because there are conflicting opinions and unanswered questions that I ask this Question tonight. I thought long and hard about whether to resurrect the issue. My intention is certainly not to turn the spotlight once again on Mary Bell and her family or on the family of her victim but to look at what is needed in this sensitive area of press freedom and press responsibility.

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My criticism of the Home Office is not that it mishandled its responsibilities towards the press but that it mishandled its responsibilities towards Mary Bell and her daughter. Perhaps the Minister can tell us again tonight whether those responsible for Mary Bell's supervision informed Ministers that she was co-operating in the writing of a book about her crimes or that payment was involved.

If Ministers were not involved and misjudgments occurred at lower levels, have lessons been learnt? In certain high profile cases, supervising authorities, whether they be social services departments or Home Office departments, should ensure that developments in these cases are brought to ministerial attention. Secondly, in relation to this case, perhaps the Minister can tell us why the injunction which carries the name of "a Mary Bell Order" was so late in applying to the very persons it was initially designed to protect.

On broader government policy towards the media, there is also a real need for clarification. At a House of Lords lunch on 11th December for newspaper editors, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, was quoted in press reports as saying that although he did not approve of criminals profiting from their crimes he was hostile to censorship. He was reported as saying that there was public interest in knowing about these crimes. Some newspapers seemed to take this as a green light for payment of criminals. I shall return in a moment to this matter of public interest, because it has also been used as a justification by the Press Complaints Commission for its adjudication. I did, however, write to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and ask for clarification of reports of his views. With his usual great courtesy, he replied as follows:

    "Media reports of my remarks are somewhat exaggerated. One of the questions I was asked concerned a convicted football hooligan who had written a book about his experiences. I was asked if he should profit from his crime. I made it clear that I regarded profiting from crime in this way as repugnant, but I could not bring myself to prohibit a book of this kind which could add to the sum total of human knowledge about the genesis of crime. There might be a public interest in knowing about these things and freedom of expression was a real issue. Other journalists suggested different examples, including the book on Mary Bell and the hypothetical prospect of a book involving James Bulger's murderers ... I made it clear that my instinctive reaction would be to resist censorship."

As I say, that is a reply of characteristic courtesy and, if I may say so, characteristic honesty. It is interesting, however, that the Lord Chancellor talks about the freedom to publish a book. The Press Complaints Commission, in its findings, called in aid a review of Cries Unheard by Mary Margaret McCabe of the Department of Philosophy at Kings College, London, which posed the question:

    "Should this book have been published? The answer is a firm 'yes'".

But the Press Complaints Commission and the Lord Chancellor surely missed the point: an academic study may well be in the public interest. What happens when that kind of public interest--that is, a genuine extension of understanding of an issue--is transformed by the press into salacious titillation for no other reason

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than to sensationalise and to sell newspapers? The commission view that it was publication, not serialisation, which provoked the search for Mary Bell is doubtful, I believe, and the statement that the furore about payments to Mary Bell would have occurred whether or not there had been serialisation begs the question of whether the serialisation finances the payments; that is, it is the serialisation rights which provide the funds for the criminal.

The commission, referring to a point I have already made, states that Mary Bell's daughter was covered by an existing injunction, and I await the Minister's comments on that. However, it goes on:

    "no complaint of harassment was received--without which it was impossible for the Commission to formally investigate."

If that is the case, I believe that the commission should change its rules. To allow a situation to arise where newspaper reporters are camped outside the house of a 14 year-old girl supposedly under the protection of the courts, in flagrant abuse of the spirit of the PCC code, is tantamount to a fireman watching a house burn down but doing nothing because no one inside has dialled 999.

Let us get things into context. In the Press Complaints Commission we have a body which is an improvement on its predecessor. It is growing in public respect and its code of conduct is increasingly written into the contracts of employment of journalists. It is clear that the Press Complaints Commission works in normal circumstances, but when it fails it fails spectacularly. It fails because journalists, editors and publishers throw self-regulation and codes of conduct to the wind when they think a story sensational enough to abandon all restraint. Let me emphasise that I am not calling for the PCC to assume pre-publication censorship powers. What I am doing is looking for it to give itself powers to investigate and intervene without specific complaint from someone directly involved--

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, I wonder if the noble Lord understands the difficulties that the Press Complaints Commission has--and I declare an interest here as a commissioner--over intervening in a situation where the person involved does not actually want any publicity or any investigation of the situation. This is a problem we face very frequently.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I appreciate the dilemma to which the noble Lord refers. These are not easy cases. I made the point that in most cases 80 per cent. of Press Complaints Commission work is dealt with by conciliation. We are dealing with hard cases, but in certain of them there is a duty to intervene even if the persons involved are reluctant to do so.

I also wish to block any loophole which exists which allows payment to an author who in turn pays a criminal. I believe that the time has come to consider sanctions of a hefty fine--I mean seven figures--to deter breaches of the code. As one journalist said to me, "When the hunt is on, a journalist who quotes the code as justification for missing out on a story will be given short shrift by his editor. And that editor, in turn, will

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be given short shrift by the proprietor." So it is the proprietor who has to feel the pain for flagrant breaches, and I believe that means fines.

In a speech at University College London, on 8th January this year, Professor Robert Pinker, of the LSE and a member of the Press Complaints Commission, said, referring to the commission's voluntary code of practice:

    "Any further changes in the Code of Practice must wait on the forthcoming review of the existing law relating to these matters which the government currently has under consideration".

I should be interested to hear the Minister's observations about that review and how it relates to what he believes is necessary in legislation and in a tightening up of the code.

However, no one who watched the saga unfold last spring can be happy to leave things as they are. Mr. Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, addressing the same conference as Professor Pinker, had this to say:

    "We are going to have to think what sort of PCC we want: whether we are going to give it more powers so that self-regulation is genuinely believed to be working or whether the courts will have to make amends for what they see as the failure of the PCC to give adequate redress".

He went on:

    "We are also going to have to think much more about those much abused words 'the public interest'".

Quite so, my Lords.

This is not a debate about censors and free spirits. It is about how a free society balances conflicting rights and freedoms. It is important that we both learn the lessons from the events of last year and that we are clear for the future what powers and responsibilities we want the PCC to have and how they mesh in with the rights and responsibilities imposed by legislation. It is in that spirit that I pose my Question and I look forward to the Minister's reply.

9.2 p.m.

Lord Wakeham: My Lords, the whole House will be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for raising these issues. I am delighted to give your Lordships an account of my role in the matter. The serialisation by The Times of the book on Mary Bell aroused a great deal of emotion, as did--and I am glad that the noble Lord concentrated a great deal on this because it is the big issue which worries me--the events which followed relating to Mary Bell's daughter.

The Press Complaints Commission, of which, as your Lordships will know, I am chairman, examined the issue in great detail over the summer. In July we published a long and carefully thought-out adjudication in which we ruled that The Times had acted in accordance with the industry's code of practice.

I must emphasise that at this point our decision was taken strictly in accordance with that code. It was not a moral judgment about whether the book should have been written. It was not a judgment about Mary Bell's decision to accept money. It was not a judgment about whether it is right or wrong to pay criminals, which is a matter for Parliament and the law. It was a judgment

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made only on the basis of a code which says that newspapers can pay criminals like Mary Bell--either directly or indirectly--provided that there is a public interest in doing so and payment is necessary for that to be done.

I have to tell your Lordships that the commission found the public interest put forward by The Times in this case to be overwhelming. It was, in a nutshell, this: does the criminal justice system actually deliver justice to children as damaged as Mary Bell was and, if not, how can it be improved?

I have to say that the public interest oozes from every pore of the book and in turn from the extracts from it which were serialised in the newspaper. They included circumstances of how a child who grew up in surroundings of depravity came to be a murderer; the connection between Bell's own crime and the abuse to which she was herself subjected; and the first authoritative account of how the penal system deals with child criminals.

All those matters were of genuine public interest--very different, I must emphasise, from what is of interest to the public, which I accept is not a justification in any circumstances--and the commission believed that the public had a right of access to the material. That is why we believed The Times was right to serialise the book and did not breach the code in doing so. What the author had to say was important and deserved a wide audience. The serialisation produced that.

In many ways, that part of our deliberation was straightforward. What disturbed me far more about the whole question of Mary Bell is what followed; namely, the alleged harassment of Mary Bell and her daughter and the apparent fact that Mary Bell was forced to reveal her identity to her daughter for the first time.

The commission had massive sympathy for Mary Bell's daughter--as indeed, if I remember rightly, did The Times--but was constrained in what action it could take. In the first place, there was an existing injunction covering the identification of Mary Bell which no one seemed to want to enforce.

Secondly, no one made a complaint to the commission, although we encouraged the social services and others to do so. Without such a complaint, it was impossible to get at the facts. It was not that we could not do anything. It was merely a question of how to get at the facts if the people concerned were not prepared to make a complaint to us.

I should have welcomed a complaint about the alleged harassment which took place and which concerned so many people. It would have given us an opportunity to make clear that the harassment of any child is unacceptable and that we shall always condemn it. But I did not have an opportunity to do so.

I make one final point about the harassment. I believe that the furore about the payment to criminals and the alleged harassment that took place would have occurred whether or not there was a serialisation of the book in The Times or any other newspaper. Concern was being expressed in some quarters about the book itself long before The Times decided to serialise it.

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I make a final general point. I said that the PCC's decision on the complaints about the book's serialisation was not a judgment about whether it was right or wrong to pay criminals, because that is, rightly, a matter for Parliament and the law. In the wake of the controversy in relation to the serialisation of the book and other high profile cases such as the payment to two nurses convicted of murder in Saudi Arabia, the Government indicated that they would be reviewing the law in this area.

I know that that will be an extremely difficult task, not least because of the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights and its guarantee of freedom of expression for everyone, including criminals. But, as I have said before--and am very happy to repeat--the Press Complaints Commission and I will co-operate fully with the Government in any review. We shall share with them everything that we have learnt during this tragic case and any other of our investigations.

9.9 p.m.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, at this particular moment in time, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. Like, I am sure, all noble Lords, I am delighted that he is to be the chairman of the Royal Commission dealing with the future of this House. It may be said that he is moving from one impossible job to another. But be that as it may, he will handle the situation with exquisite skill and integrity and I am extremely pleased to follow him this evening.

I join in the tribute to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for raising this subject. I shall make three brief points, although we are not as constrained for time this evening as we often are on these occasions.

The first question is whether criminals should profit from their crimes. In that connection, people discuss the position of Dennis Nilsen, who I have visited off and on for the past five years. He strangled 12 young men. Should he be allowed to write his memoirs? I believe that his memoirs are likely to be published. It will be of great interest to know how someone like that--a very able man, in my experience--came to commit such awful acts. It will be terrible if we declare that prisoners are not permitted to write books.

When the books are published, should the authors be allowed to make money? There is shock when a vast sum is paid. Nilsen has said that he will give all the money to charity. That perhaps raises a different question. But surely a criminal who is willing to give all the money to charity should be allowed to write a book. Anybody who has been in prison for many years, accepting his full punishment, should be allowed to be rewarded and paid for his work. Otherwise, we should be adding to his punishment. I know that it is not an easy question, particularly when a vast sum of money is mentioned. However, I believe that it would be wrong to say that prisoners, particularly those convicted of very grave offences, should not be allowed to write a book and be paid for it.

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The second question is whether the Press Complaints Commission is adequately briefed for the work involved. Noble Lords have heard me say often that I regularly visit prisoners. In fact, I saw a couple this morning. Prisoners are helpless people. It may be said that they have put themselves in that position, but they are helpless and at the mercy of the tabloid press. As human beings, as near to God as any of us, are they to be protected against gross maltreatment by the press and the tabloids in particular? They clearly deserve some protection.

I am afraid that at the present time the Press Complaints Commission is not constructed in a way that allows prisoners to defend themselves in all cases. I am thinking in particular of a case which the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, may remember; he was very helpful to me at that time. It was a complicated case. The prisoner was a brilliant man in prison for serious offences. He was maltreated and libelled in a disgraceful way in a popular newspaper.

I took up the matter. It was complicated and took some time to sort out. It is not possible to obtain legal aid in such cases and in the end we found a solicitor who was ready to act for nothing. Eventually the case was presented but by that time it was too late; it was out of time. One must present a case within a month or the case becomes out of time.

My second point is that the Press Complaints Commission should look again at its rules which say that if complaints are not brought within one month they will be out of time.

I want to turn to something a little wider; that is, the general protection of prisoners. They are helpless people, maltreated, and often grossly libelled by the press. For instance, Myra Hindley--who I have known for 30 years--was described by the Sun newspaper as an "evil monster". People have called me some terrible things in my time, but not an "evil monster", at least not yet. The question is whether it is right for any newspaper to be allowed to say that and get away with it. That is the present situation.

To cut a long story short, in that case I am speaking of somebody I have known for 30 years. She is a very religious woman, as a number of Catholic priests today could testify and, indeed, as one of the close relatives of one of those who is to follow me would testify. She is a good, religious woman. There is no protection for that person, and in my opinion there is no way to give her protection unless we alter the law of libel so that she can obtain legal aid. There would need to be close restrictions on it, otherwise every prisoner would complain every day of the week, as would politicians. So, there will be no real protection for the helpless in our society until the law of libel is altered.

9.16 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap. I had not intended to do so but became interested in the debate and hope that my brief intervention will add something rather than subtract.

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I am very glad that my noble friend Lord McNally introduced this important subject. As someone who, in the past, has had the misfortune from time to time to take a different view from the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and what he said about the Human Rights Bill, the Press Complaints Commission and the right to privacy, on this occasion I agree with him and the way in which the Press Complaints Commission adjudicated, within their limited powers, in the case of Mary Bell. It reached the right decision but there are lessons to be learnt.

The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, referred to the European Convention on Human Rights and some of the difficult problems that arise. Perhaps I can make one or two fairly obvious points. First, once the Human Rights Act comes into force in the year 2000, the courts will have to balance free speech and personal privacy, including free speech for prisoners and ex-prisoners. The American Supreme Court some time ago held in the "Son of Sam" case that one could not prevent prisoners or ex-prisoners making money out of their books because it would breach the first amendment of the US Constitution, in my view--I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Longford--rightly so. Prisoners must have rights to free speech unless the public interest is against them for overwhelmingly strong reasons.

It is important that the Press Complaints Commission is given the power to provide effective remedies so that the courts are only involved in the last resort and not as a matter of course. The media clause which the Government wrote into the Human Rights Act is a great incentive to the press to give powers to the Press Complaints Commission since the privacy code will be taken into account by judges when they decide upon what remedies to grant.

I have earned my living in arguing free speech cases for newspapers. I am convinced, first, that the right to personal privacy is not sufficiently protected, certainly for private persons like Mary Bell's daughter, wholly innocent third parties. Secondly, unless the Press Complaints Commission is given powers to provide effective remedies, especially compensatory remedies in cases where there may or may not be a victim complaining, the courts will have to intervene. That may be a good thing in some cases but I hope that one of the lessons that is learnt by the press--it is not a matter for the Government--is that it must put its house in order by giving greater powers to the Press Complaints Commission.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Neill of Bladen: My Lords, I have not put my name down to speak and I think that in many ways I am not entitled to speak. However, I crave the indulgence of your Lordships' House to do so on this first occasion. I had not intended to speak but I felt that I could hardly refrain when I learnt that the matter of the Press Complaints Commission was being debated here. As a former chairman of the Press Council, I believe that I have some locus standi to make one or two observations.

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First, I should like to support the present chairman of the Press Complaints Commission in the doctrine he enunciates that, if there is sufficient public interest--if the matter is one of public interest not just of interest to the public--it justifies publication, and the press, the media, should be permitted, in those circumstances, to pay for procuring the story. That has to be a right which is carefully watched. We laid down that rule years ago in a case which all your Lordships will remember, that of the "Yorkshire Ripper". That was a case of disgraceful conduct by the press of a most intrusive character. It included people waiting outside the house of the Yorkshire Ripper's wife, Mrs. Sutcliffe, and pushing notes through her letterbox offering to pay £1,000 more than the previous offer pushed through the letterbox. That was one of the disgraceful episodes in the effort to procure that story. Finally, in the most Dickensian and horrific fashion, on the night before her husband was due to be tried at the Old Bailey, her house was entirely surrounded by the press until after midnight. She escaped to catch the milk train by climbing over her back wall because she was so harassed. In the Mary Bell case too there have been reports of harassment which are gravely to be deplored.

The only other point I wish to address relates to the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. The noble Lord said that the Press Complaints Commission should have power to administer effective remedies. That is an old cry from the days of the Press Council. The remedies include such matters as requiring a particular form of publication to be made by the offending journal--a power possessed by the Press Complaints Commission in India--and a power to enjoin future publications or financial penalties, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who raised this important matter in his Unstarred Question.

My difficulty with that is that, as soon as one gives that sort of power to the Press Complaints Commission, it is inevitably turned into a quasi-judicial tribunal where the place is packed and there is no right to refuse to let lawyers come and argue their cases. One has to concede that right under the Human Rights Convention, under, I believe, Article 6, but at any rate in the spirit of the convention lawyers would have to be allowed to appear. What then happens to the unfortunate complainant who may have made a complaint on his or her own without any assistance? Will the complainant be provided with legal representation? Your Lordships can foresee the result. The commission would be turned into a form of court and there would have to be an appellate system and so on. I believe that that would be a retrograde move.

I urge upon your Lordships the view that that would not be helpful in the development of self-control by the press as regards its own affairs and putting its own house in order. That should not include penalties of the sort which carry with them the full panoply of legal process and due process. While I am grateful that this issue has been raised, I hope that it does not end up with a move towards legal process in the Press Complaints Commission.

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9.24 p.m.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I find myself in the role of being the first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, on his maiden speech. He has succeeded the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, in the chairmanship of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The noble Lord's speech added to our debate and its unexpectedness was matched only by the noble Lord's eloquence. We are all grateful to him.

As I understand it, the first set of complaints relating to this issue was made in April last year due to the serialisation by The Times of the book Cries Unheard. I understand that, in the case of Mary Bell, the publication of Cries Unheard took place 30 years after the crime had been committed and therefore fell outside the time set in statute in this regard. The commission took note of that.

I read the commission's report with interest. It found the newspaper's public interest arguments in this case to be compelling. Anybody who read the serialisation realised that it was a most extraordinary tale. The views of the commission must be considered carefully. The commission noted that the newspaper was only serialising the work. Arguments of freedom of expression and of public interest attached to the case, but the material had already been put into the public domain as a result of the willing co-operation of Mary Bell herself and what she had to say about the original material and the issues relating to crime and punishment.

As my noble friend said--as was bound to happen--whether as a result of the book or the serialisation, a number of newspapers began to search for Mary Bell. That led to allegations of harassment of Mary Bell and her daughter. The most extraordinary episode of all was the fact that Mary Bell was forced to reveal her past identity to her daughter for the first time.

I know that the Press Complaints Commission had a great deal of sympathy for Mary Bell's daughter, but it felt that, under Clause 16 of its code, it could not take that matter into account. The intrusion into Mary Bell's private life and that of her daughter was covered by an existing injunction. However, as my noble friend said, no complaint of harassment was received. Therefore, under the current rules, it was impossible for the commission formally to investigate. I am sure that all noble Lords will have listened carefully when my noble friend said that the commission would have welcomed a complaint from one of the interested parties so that it could look into these issues. That is the nub of the matter.

Should the Press Complaints Commission's current rules be changed? One must remember that the press are not always totally to blame when they go too far. To realise that, one need only remember the mass of photographers outside the house of Kevin Maxwell at 5 a.m. when he was arrested. It was clear that somebody somewhere within the system had tipped them off. Indeed, one need only read the front page of today's

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edition of The Times, which reports the arrest of a Roman Catholic Archbishop who,

    "immediately denounced the leaking of his case to a Sunday newspaper.
If the press are fed in that way, they are bound to use the material.

So, one must consider where the material comes from. I believe that the Government must judge that issue because in the past it has all too often been obvious that information about the conduct of criminal cases has been leaked to the press. Of its nature, the press play "grandmother's footsteps" with both the Press Complaints Commission and, perhaps, the Government.

The press are better behaved nowadays. It is a tribute to the leadership of my noble friend Lord Wakeham that the Press Complaints Commission has improved the behaviour of the press. There is no doubt of that. Indeed the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, is also a member of the commission. The behaviour of the press has improved particularly with regard to what one might term people from ordinary walks of life who often do not have the influence, the money or the ability to stand up to the press when they are bullied.

We all know that the rich and famous or politicians may suffer from the attentions of the press, but sometimes they have a chance to fight back. However, the problem is, of course, that by and large the press follow the rules, but if a story is big enough they often break the rules. We have to accept that circulation matters and in those circumstances it is not a matter of the public interest but what is of interest to the public. However, nowadays that rarely happens. That is a tribute to the work of the Press Complaints Commission.

Perhaps the nub of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, concerns whether third party complaints should be addressed by the Press Complaints Commission. The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, gave a reason why that should not occur. The commission has examined third party complaints. To those who are not involved in a case, the Press Complaints Commission may appear to be distant from the public. I accept the argument expressed by many editors that if every third party complaint was addressed they would never do any other work. In this day and age editors receive hundreds of communications every day, whether by fax, letter or the Internet, from people who say they do not agree with a story, and that the editors should look into the matter.

The Government are reviewing the existing law to determine whether it is adequate in this area. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about the timetable of the review. However, I do not expect that he will be able to give many details of it. As a review is taking place, that presents an opportunity for the Press Complaints Commission also to review some of its rules. We must remember that the commission is a self-regulating body which is largely run for the benefit of the industry. It is not run entirely by the industry as it contains independent members such as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. If the commission does not want to consider the whole range of third party complaints--which I quite understand--it may wish to consider whether a particular case is relevant to another case

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which it is currently considering. The commission may also wish to consider whether in its opinion there is an overwhelming public interest issue at stake. In those circumstances the commission may wish to consider a particular case. That is a matter for the commission to ponder. As I say, there is an opportunity for the Press Complaints Commission to consider its rules in conjunction with the Government's review.

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