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I join with noble Lords who have spoken both from the Opposition Benches and from the Government Benches in saying that the public want action. It is clear that self-regulation has not worked. It has been given a long time. People are being hurt and will continue to be unless the Government introduce greater penalties than they have introduced this afternoon.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, over anxieties about lower standards. I alluded to them earlier in my remarks. It is because we want to see something happen that we propose to deal with the abuses along the lines I have described. We believe that the flexibility inherent in an effective system of self-regulation will deliver the kind of safeguards that we all want to see.
To use a vernacular phrase, the ball is now back in the industry's court. There is a PCC with a new chairman who is clearly and emphatically committed to a change in these matters. We believe that this will be the way forward.
Perhaps I may make one final comment. It has been intimated on two separate occasions that the Government's response to this matter has been motivated by a fear of the press. After the events of the past two or three weeks my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has no fear of the press.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. He made reference to a fund. One could call it a slush fund or a hush fund. I am not sure what the right terminology would be. A number of questions arise in relation to the fund. I believe that it is to be run by the PCC and based on a levy from various newspapers that might be affected. Money would obviously be dispursed to complainants.
On what basis would money be dispursed? Would it be disbursed in large amounts to people who court publicity and perhaps find that following a photocall the wrong photograph appears in a newspaper? They have made a mistake. They may be a bit short of money; they make a complaint and a large chunk of dosh is doled out to them to help their finances. Or will it be used for the classic case of the unemployed person who is pilloried as a social security scrounger even though he may be making strenuous efforts to find employment? On what basis will the financial disbursement be made?
Secondly, on what basis will money come from the various newspapers? Will it be a levy based on their circulation, turnover or profits? Will there be any connection between the levy and the number of complaints made against a particular title?
The House must be gravely concerned by the idea that an intrusion into someone's privacy can be compensated by monetary payments. There is no effective redress for that person other than in financial terms. There seems to be no penalty against the perpetrators of invasion of privacy except in monetary terms. Bearing in mind the enormous sums of money that top people pay themselves, is a financial penalty likely to have any effect whatsoever?
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, let me make it quite clear at the outset that this is not envisaged in any way as being a system under which unscrupulous newspapers may be able to buy their way into breaching people's privacy. Let us hit that idea on the head at the outset.
The Government find attractive the idea that the PCC should have a fund which would be collected from the various newspapers from which it could pay appropriate compensation. We are not here talking of punitive damages but appropriate compensation to those people who have been affected by breaches of the PCC's code of conduct. We are at an early stage of consideration of this matter. However, it is important to note that in those circumstances the fact that compensation might be payable would not be the only remedy in the hands of the PCC. It is unthinkable that it would be simply a case of buying off an incident which was in breach of the code. The Government believe that this is an attractive idea which will assist in this regard.
In this context it is important to remember that there are a number of civil remedies which may or may not have a bearing on the kind of activities with which the PCC is concerned. I am thinking in particular of the noble Lord's remarks concerning defamation.
Lord Beloff: My Lords, I suggest to the Minister that the anxieties of the public are not covered by the notion of a balance between a person's right to a private life and the freedom of the press. The former is overwhelmingly more important. After all, our legal system is based on the notion of the King's Peace, the preservation of the citizen in his life and limb, and also increasingly in our time, and rightly, his reputation. That is surely much more important than the right of tabloid newspapers, without which we could do very well, as the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, reminded us, to print what they like and to obtain information by what means they like.
I find it difficult to appreciate the view of the Minister that there are technical difficulties which prevent the Government from tackling one aspect which Sir David Calcutt emphasised, namely the use of modern technological means such as long-distance cameras and eavesdropping machines of one kind or another. If the Government wish to persuade this House and the country of their sincerity in wishing to see privacy preserved, why can they not bring forward a short Bill, the work for which has already been done by Sir David
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Beloff for drawing our attention to this matter. Clause 5 of the PCC code of practice specifically covers listening devices, which is the general description of the kind of device to which my noble friend referred. That is already in the PCC code of conduct. It has been introduced into the code since it was first written in 1991. Against that background, bearing in mind his comments, surely the appropriate course is to see whether that works. If it does not then the case that my noble friend advances inevitably becomes that much stronger.
How does the Minister reconcile that statement with the rush by the tabloid press to pay an American prostitute for information regarding her dealings with a well-known British actor? I understand that the contest was won to the tune of £100,000 by Mr. Hughes.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the short answer to the noble Lord is no. The clear response by the industry to the proposals, and the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Wakeham, suggest to us quite clearly that there is the shift in the general direction which I described. I made reference to the reprimand that was given to the editor of a well-known Sunday newspaper. I suggest that that would have been unthinkable even a year or so ago.
However, we believe that what I have described is the case. As I concluded when reading the Statement of my right honourable friend, it is an issue which will be taken extremely seriously by the Government. The matter is now in the hands of the industry. It is up to the industry to operate a voluntary system in accordance with the generally accepted attitudes of this House, which we believe are those of the country at large, or we shall have again to consider the matter.
Lord Elton: My Lords, I seem previously to have heard the words "It is up to the industry" in this connection. I have been listening, therefore, for some crumbs of comfort for those of us who would like Her Majesty's Government to proceed more briskly in the matter. (I am sorry if I am a little obscure in my speech; half my face is still frozen from a recent visit to the dentist.)
It seems to me that there has been insufficient recognition of what my noble friend Lord Wakeham has already achieved by getting into the contract of employment of editors an undertaking to observe the code. That has given a means of removing from office
If such a code is backed up by a pecuniary penalty, as is now suggested, in the form of a significant bond to be retained each year by the commission against good conduct, there will be that pecuniary pressure on the proprietors also to honour the code.
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