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Lord Wakeham: My Lords, I have long since passed the day when I seek to pass judgments of that kind. I was quoting from the judgments of others. The one thing I learned when I was at the PCC was not to give condemnations of anyone without hearing the arguments on both sides. Of course, every newspaper I had to deal with had occasional lapses in standards. If there were no lapses in standards, there would be no need for a PCC. I believe that for the past 10 years standards have improved and I see no reason why they should not continue to improve. Indeed, I had to deal with a number of attempts, akin to this amendment, to deal with such issues and I always welcomed them. I took the view that they were welcome opportunities so long as people did not inhale too deeply what was being said. They were helpful to the PCC because they enabled it to show the industry that there was concern
Nevertheless, my judgment remains that this proposal has many more negatives than pluses. I shall try to explain why. I draw a clear distinction, as I believe the Government do in the Bill, between the kind of regulations that one needs for radio and televisiona licensing systembecause of the limited spectrum, although I wonder for how much longer, in the years to come, it will be possible to maintain that distinction. At the moment, that is the position and the Bill seeks to regulate it.
On the other hand, newspapers do not need licences; they are part of a free society. On one occasion, when Home Secretary, Jack Straw referred to the freedom of the press as a manifestation of the freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act. I disagree fundamentally with the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I do not believe that there is, in practice, a half-way house. Either the press is free or it is statutorily controlled. Co-regulation and accredited self-regulation are another way of controlling the press through the law. A body such as Ofcom, which, in effect, is run and financed by the state, ultimately would have to decide whether a newspaper was responsible when that newspaper might well be judging the position of people in power. Ofcom could hold that the newspaper was irresponsible. I do not believe that Ofcom should be put in that position. In my view, that is not compatible with a free press.
That is at the heart of the matter. Let us assume that it happens. What does Ofcom do about it? When it judges that the press or the PCC are irresponsible, does it intervene? Does it ask the Government to intervene? If not, it will find itself defending actions in the courts. If that happens that will be the end of a free press in this country.
On a practical level, the PCC does its job by common-sense resolution of disputes. Not everyone is happy with the outcome of such resolutions, but to create a body to which the PCC is accredited is to create an appellate body to which disgruntled complainants will run with their grievances. At one fell swoop the system becomes legal and unwieldy. The true losers will be the vast majority of citizens of this country who currently receive good and speedy redress from the system of self-regulation.
Lord Wakeham: My Lords, that is nowhere in the Bill. That is the point. If a complainant receives an unfavourable judgment from the Press Complaints Commission, and Ofcom, under this resolution, does not take steps to deal with that, in my view the person could go to court to seek to say that Ofcom was not carrying out the statutory responsibility that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would like it to undertake. As a result, the complainant would seek damages and Ofcom would find itself in the courts every time
At the moment the PCC works, not perfectlyI have never said that it doesbut pretty well because of a financial and a moral commitment of the publishers to self-regulation. If the amendment, or something similar, is part of the law of the land, and the press was brought under the ambit of statutory control, would they continue to support the whole business? I fear not. So we may find that at one fell swoopas regards the ordinary citizen, who does not have the odd £250 million necessary to take an action in the courtswe would go from an imperfect system of self-regulation, with all its shortcomings, to a system, in practice, of no regulation. That would be a very bad deal for the citizens of this country.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I oppose the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. It would confer a duty on Ofcom to provide for the enforcement of the Press Complaints Commission's code of practice. Noble Lords have already said today that last Monday the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee published its report into privacy and media intrusion. The committee was charged with the task of assessing the effectiveness of the PCC and making recommendations as to its improvement. In proposing that the Government reconsider their current position on this issue, the committee recommended that they should undertake full and wide consultation prior to any legislative change. We do not believe that legislative intervention would provide a sensible or an adequate solution.
My noble friend Lord Wakeham gave cogent reasons why the amendment would not work and why it should be resisted. It would be otiose to attempt to repeat those reasons. We do not suggestnor did my noble friend to any extentthat the Press Complaints Commission is perfect, but we believe that self-regulation is the most effective mechanism through which our press can be scrutinised. We therefore welcome Sir Christopher Meyer's invitation to review the progress of the Press Complaints Commission in a year's time. The freedom of the press is a fundamental democratic right that should be safeguarded. We do not support legislative change in that area and, therefore, oppose the introduction of statutory control of the press through the back door.
We want, of course, effective self-regulation. I believe that that is what we all want. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, made reference to the Advertising Standards Authority. I am minded to suggest that it would be helpful if the PCC took a leaf out of the self-regulatory book of the advertising industry and of the Advertising Standards Authority. Perhaps that is not a fair comparison; however, it is an irresistible suggestion because, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, rightly said, the Advertising Standards Authority commands respect
Lord Lipsey: I want to refer to the Advertising Standards Authority. I am a member of the council of that authoritynice things have been said about the authority for which I thank noble Lordsand I have worked most of my life in the newspaper industry which the amendment addresses.
Why does the ASA work well, and why is it viewed as working well, yet the PCC seems to convince only itself that it is absolutely perfect? The noble Lord, Lord McNally, is right to point out that the kind of rhetoric usedI do not refer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, but to what was said to the Select Committeeis out of all proportion to the reality. The press does not seem to be able to look at the situation rationally. I believe that that is due partly to the different cultural situations in the two organisations. By and large, in the advertising industry the Advertising Standards Authority's verdicts are accepted. Sometimes people do not like individual verdicts because with an adverse ASA ruling one cannot win an advertising award. It is an amazingly effective sanction, which the press might like to think about.
My experience in the press is that although the top bods will pay plenty of lip service to the PCC, deep down among the practitioners at the coalface the PCC is seen not as something necessary to the press and to its furtherance but as an obstacle; as the enemy, something to be got around and ignored. On too many occasions it is ignored.
There have been so many last chances for the press on the issue that one is reluctant to provide another. But the key if the press wishes to avoid the kind of regulation proposed in the amendment is that it must try to internalise the PCC code. Journalists must not be taught that this is an adventure playground in which anything goes and one gets away with whatever one can. They must not be allowed to treat ordinary human beings as though the human soul can be disregarded by journalists, and as though they are freed from the ethical constraints on the rest of us just because they are a free press.
Of course I am in favour of a free press, as we all are. Having spent many years in the industry, I say in all seriousness that if that does not happen swiftly and Chris Meyer's initial work does not turn into something more concrete that the newspapers take on board, then if the McNally amendment does not succeed today, it will succeed in some Parliament coming soon. I would rather avoid that, but the press has its fate in its own hands.
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