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The Earl of Longford: My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether it is true that in order to have a complaint considered seriously by the Press Complaints Commission it has to be submitted under a clause in the code which, of course, is not available to a vast number of the population?
Lord Wakeham: My Lords, at the Press Complaints Commission we are required to operate under a code. Indeed, that is the only way that I believe we can seriously operate. We are only able to deal with those matters included in the code. However, that is usually not a constraint that affects people. I know that the noble Earl follows such matters very closely. I believe that he may be concerned in cases where a complaint may be made many months after the event occurred. In such cases, the commission does consider the explanation as to why the complaint was made so long after the event. In cases where the commission is satisfied that it is reasonable, it will waive the rule which states that a complaint must normally be made within one month of the publication of the offending piece of journalism. That is the procedure in such a case; and, indeed, we have adopted it on many occasions.
The voluntary agreement has also established specific guidelines in a number of special areas, such as the reporting of patients suffering from mental illness and the reporting of court cases. Each of these helps to raise standards in the press, but has only been achieved because the commission works through the co-operation of all newspapers and magazines. It is that co-operation which allows us to deal effectively with cases of harassment. Where someone is at the centre of a news story and a media scrum forms, we can act to break it up by asking editors to remove their reporters in line with the code. That is what happened in a high profile way at Dunblane. It happened at Balmoral over the
All that would go if there were no code and no Press Complaints Commission, and losing it is not as far fetched as it might seem. In my view, the PCC and the code would not survive the imposition of statute, which might happen if the current Human Rights Bill is made law.
There is another point. Apart from practical reasons why a self-regulatory system is preferable to statute, there is also a sound philosophical reason. The freedom of the press has been a cornerstone of our democracy since 1689. A press subjected to a legal regime would no longer be a free press, but one subject to control of courts and government. I profoundly do not want that to happen--nor, I believe, does any democrat.
But the press can be free and responsible without the need for statute through effective self-regulation based on a tough code and the commitment of all newspapers. That is what we are seeking to achieve now. It is certainly not perfect--and there is more to do--but it does work. It works to resolve disputes: nearly nine in 10 of those where there is a case to answer. It works to raise standards through its adjudications and guidelines on special issues. It works for the benefit of ordinary people, thousands of whom use our service every year without cost to them. It also works in a whole range of areas to give special protection to the vulnerable. Statute could never replace that, and its future is in real danger.
Lord Callaghan of Cardiff: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I have one point to raise with him. He has not told us what his objection is to an independent ombudsman service to which everyone could appeal whether rich or poor and which would have nothing to do with the covenant which we are now discussing. Can he enlighten us in that respect?
Lord Wakeham: My Lords, I am very happy to give the noble Lord an explanation on that point. If we set up a statutory ombudsman, his decisions are bound to be the subject of appeal to the courts. I can assure the noble Lord that, if they want to, newspapers will run any complaint through the courts of this land. As a result, many ordinary people will not risk the chances of that happening. If I may say so, it is perhaps not very easy for those in this House who are articulate, who are able to travel the world saying what they think and are listened to, to realise that many ordinary people believe that they may lose something like a quarter of a million pounds if they are taken to the High Court as the result of an appeal by a newspaper to a statutory decision by a statutory ombudsman, and so they simply will not complain. In my judgment, that is the danger that we would face with a statutory system. I do not believe that ordinary people in this country would find that acceptable.
Lord Wakeham: My Lords, where there is a procedure brought before Parliament and approved by it giving newspapers the right to pursue such matters in the courts, I do not believe that it is either sensible or reasonable that they should be asked voluntarily to give up such rights just because some people believe that that would be more convenient for everyone. If this House is going to give people the right to pursue such matters through the courts then, in the appropriate circumstances, I believe that they will wish to do so. I do not believe that they should be criticised in that respect. I want to create a system where that does not happen.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I hesitate to badger the noble Lord at this stage, but can he say whether the PCC procedure depends entirely on a complaint being made? If there is a blatant case--of which there have been many--of invasion of privacy and those involved are too ignorant or too frightened to complain, does the commission just sit and do nothing?
Lord Wakeham: My Lords, that is the kind of issue that I had to face when I first took up the position. In my view, if an individual does not wish to complain there is a limited amount of investigation that one can, or should, undertake against his wishes in exposing the intrusion into his privacy. Therefore, where appropriate, we certainly talk to such people and invite them to complain. Indeed, I have made a whole range of public speeches encouraging people to exercise their right to complain.
However, I initially took the view that the situation was not satisfactory. Therefore, I pointed out to members of the commission--and they agreed--that there were certain issues of public concern which should be investigated which did not necessarily involve an individual who must have a right as to whether or not he or she wished to pursue the matter through the courts. I can give your Lordships examples galore of people who publicly say, "I want to complain". However, I have then talked privately to the newspapers and I know perfectly well that they have made their public statements but that they have no intention of complaining, for very good reasons. So it is not always the fault of the newspapers.
Before I sit down I should point out to the House that I did make a change in the rules in relation to matters of public interest; for example, as regards the National Lottery. The case of the gentleman who won the lottery the first time and went off to India with his £18 million, seemed to me to be an absurd position. In that instance I was not able to give any adjudication as to whether or not the newspapers would be right to publish his name.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, as a former chairman of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, perhaps I may just raise a tiny matter of fact which relates to the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. That commission was a statutory body. We were subject to the courts. However, at no point were we taken to the courts with the plaintiff having to bear the costs; it was taken to judicial review and the commission bore the costs. As regards a statutory body--and I served on one for five years--I should point out that there is no danger of a plaintiff facing costs in the order of a quarter of a million pounds; indeed, in my experience it never happened.
The Earl of Longford: My Lords, at long last I submit myself to the House. It is pleasant to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. She is one of the most respected Members of the House and one of the best speakers, if I am allowed to say so. Naturally, I feel tremendous sympathy with what she has been saying. She has been treated wickedly; so, incidentally, has Mr. Neil Hamilton whom I have recently come to know and like. However, that is not my immediate issue, and it is not the immediate issue today. Any sufferings I have had at the hands of the press in the past or recently, which I shall describe, are trivial compared with what the noble Baroness has been through.
It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, who is struggling to do the best he can with a hopeless case. Our enormous sympathy must go out to him. I have special sympathy for him because I read in the newspapers today that he has resigned on honourable grounds from some different body. If I may say so--I hope he does not mind--he joins a small club of those who have resigned from important positions. He may not like them all; some have resigned in rather unfavourable circumstances. When I resigned from the Cabinet, someone said, "Oh, they have shot our fox." However, I do not say that is the reason in this case with the noble Lord. I feel a great deal of sympathy for him.
When I was young I entertained journalistic ambitions. I did not last long in the world of what the late Lord Beaverbrook called the black art. I was an assistant leader writer in the 30s on the Daily Mail. I was greeted by the main leader writer, who was not anxious for me to succeed, with the words, "You must know the policy of this paper. We regard the Germans as the cruellest people in the world except the Chinese and of course the Irish", looking at me. That was my reception at the Daily Mail. I did not survive long there. I did not last much longer on the Spectator. The editor again was not keen for me to succeed for various reasons. He greeted me with the words, "Oh, we have a nice little job for you. You were at Eton, were you not? There is a story here about drunkenness at Eton. We want you to go down and investigate." I did my best but my revered headmaster greeted me with the words, "If you are being employed to blackguard your old school,
However, I have had enormous pleasure--as have most of us--from reading the newspapers over the years. In that sense I am a friend of theirs. However, I have come to the conclusion that something along the lines of that mentioned by the noble Baroness must be adopted. The papers are unkind about politicians, but certainly in any house of parliament we are unkind--and rightly severe at the moment--about them. Speaking generally, there is no doubt that in the eyes of most people the standard of journalism--for whatever reason--has gone down. Yet I continue to read the papers. I read the Sun every day. I do not know how many other Members of the House of Lords read it every day. I have not seen any doing so, but still. Therefore I was quick to notice a short leading article about me headed "Wrongford". That is a pretty feeble pun on my name. The article stated that I had been talking rot about Myra Hindley for 20 years. At any rate that was the gist of the article. I am not saying that it is alone in expressing that view, but that is what appeared in the Sun. I should have thought most of us would agree that one is entitled to reply to a leading article in which one is named and concentrated upon. The Sun allowed a right of reply to one of the most esteemed Members of this House, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, who had been described as one of the dirty dozen. I think most people would say that in principle if a leading article in a national paper is devoted to a person, that person is entitled to a right of reply. One may say that it should not be an absolute right because in the last resort the editor is entitled to say that the reply is unsuitable. Nevertheless the editor should give a reasoned reply as to why he cannot publish a letter.
An article appeared in the Sun one Saturday and I rang up on the Sunday. A very helpful secretary spoke to me. She was kind enough to take down over the telephone my fairly short reply. Two days later, after several attempts, I contacted the editor. I was greeted with the words, "We are not going to have you abusing our staff." I wondered what that was all about as I had had nothing but courtesy from the lady on the telephone and I could not think that I had been rude to her. I thought afterwards that perhaps something in my letter had upset him. I had said that to my certain knowledge the leader writer was a good Christian person like Myra Hindley. That may have got under his skin a little. However, if one dishes it out, one has to take it, as they say. I wrote in my letter that I would have assumed he would pay attention to the testimony of the Reverend Peter Timms, a former governor of Maidstone, and then a Methodist clergyman for many years, who had spoken up for her character more than once, and also to the testimonies of a whole series of Catholic priests,
As the conversation went on, the editor became more and more angry. He said, "I shall not print a single word you ever write." Other people have refused to print words that I have written but they have not said that they would never do so. The editor finished with the words, "You are a pompous idiot, OK?" My reply is unsuitable for your Lordships' delicate ears as it was quite blunt. That is my experience of trying to reply to a leading article about myself in a national newspaper.
Noble Lords may wonder why I do not approach the Press Complaints Commission. The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, will know what I am going to say now; namely, that I have had an unhappy experience of that body. That is not because of any lack of kindness on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, who has done his best to help me. However, there are great difficulties for those in a weak position. A prisoner whom I have visited regularly for a long time was grossly libelled in the News of the World. That was not due to any dishonesty on the part of the editor whom I know to be an honest man. However, he had been grossly misinformed by some journalist who has since left the paper and, I believe, is suffering some kind of breakdown. It was a total libel.
I took the matter up but it took some time to reach the Press Complaints Commission. I must be careful here as I do not wish to incriminate the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, by suggesting that he was too friendly to me as that might be unhelpful to him. He was anxious to help but the complaint was judged to be out of time. I went to great trouble to build up the case. I was dealing with a man in custody who is not that easy to get hold of. The complaint was ruled out of time as it had not been put before the commission within a month. Therefore I do not have much confidence in the Press Complaints Commission. However, I believe that I am just about within the month and I shall send the commission a copy of Hansard tomorrow as something that I hope will be accepted as an official complaint. I shall be pleasantly surprised, however, if that is enough. One needs something stronger and firmer. I am entirely on the side of the noble Baroness in calling for firmer action to bring the worst features of the press under control.
Lord Burnham: My Lords, the whole House will be exceedingly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, for introducing this debate. I am sorry that there are not more speakers with experience of the press--of whom we have many in your Lordships' Chamber--who will join us in discussing this question.
It is of course conventional to thank the introducer of such a debate for what he or she has done. That may be the convention. It is particularly relevant as regards the noble Baroness. It is fairly rare, I believe, that the person introducing the debate has been so affected by the subject matter. We must all have the deepest sympathy with the noble Baroness for what she suffered from the
A large number of Members of your Lordships' House may have suffered in a similar way from the press. On one occasion I was well and truly pilloried by Private Eye. I happened to be seeing the then Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath, and was weeping on his shoulder. He just looked at me and said, "Once". I appreciate that many people in this House, another place and elsewhere have suffered on many occasions.
I would criticise very slightly the noble Baroness for restricting the debate to the press only. The television and other media are almost equally as guilty of intrusion and invasion of privacy as are newspapers. I speak as a journalist with 35 years on a newspaper. I come from a family which has had 142 years' service on a newspaper. It is true to say that while the newspapers have undoubtedly changed, and the emphasis of what they write has changed enormously, nevertheless there has always been concentration on scandal. In the 19th century there were many scandals which, in the terms of those days, were as hateful and opprobrious as those we see today. Certainly in the earlier part of this century, until the change of the divorce laws, many suffered deeply from reports in the newspapers.
Many innocent people are pilloried in the newspapers for their part in events where, even if they are accurately reported, the punishment does not fit the crime. In years gone by, I do not believe that the Foreign Secretary would have been blasted by dozens of newspaper pages of fact, fiction and comment about his marital and extra-marital affairs. I am sure the majority of your Lordships will sympathise with him for the way in which he has been treated, even if they do not sympathise with him for having got himself into that position in the first place.
The Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary may have problems but they do not deserve the way in which they have been treated. Numbers of more ordinary people have suffered the same, some of it deserved, much of it not. They are to be commiserated with because in most cases they did not deserve it.
That is the downside of the British press as we know it. I agree totally with my noble friend Lord Wakeham. Even with an ombudsman, there is statutory interference in the background which cannot be ignored. Statutory regulation of the press and other media has to be enforced in black and white. "Black and white and read all over" is no longer a pun relevant to modern newspapers. We are aware of many cases where the freedom of the press has been democracy's most powerful weapon. Can such and such an event be reported or not? It either can or cannot. The issue is black or white; there is no grey area where one can say, "I might or might not get away with this one".
I do not believe that Chappaquiddick or Watergate would have been reported had they occurred in France. I do not believe that the scandal of the Belgian paedophile cases would not have been exposed had they
My noble friend Lord Wakeham has had a distinguished career as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. There has been enormous improvements as a result of his activities. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, mentioned complaints. I congratulate him on his performance in that role. I am sorry that all his other activities do not seem to have received the same support.
The Press Complaints Commission has a code of conduct, as the noble Lord made clear. I do not know how many noble Lords have read the code of conduct. I have read it carefully to see how it could be improved, but I can see no way in which it can be improved. The problem is enforcing the code. Here I believe that there has been a change. The hysteria which accompanied the death of the Princess of Wales has had one good result: it has drawn the actions of the paparazzi and others who have offended against privacy to the attention of newspaper editors. The lack of privacy has shocked many people, including editors. As a result, I believe that newspapers will enforce their own code of conduct so that journalists do not print items such as they have in the past. This has nothing to do with the PCC's code of conduct. It is the editors who put the items in the newspapers.
However, one should not blame entirely the newspapers. So much of this activity--to some of us it is inexcusable--is what the public want to read. It is not only the tabloids which are guilty. As the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, mentioned, the Guardian has been particularly guilty in some cases as regards Mr. Fayed. But the tabloids print only what the public want. If the public did not want to read about such activity they would not buy the newspapers and the papers would not print it. So the blame must not be put only on the papers--the phrase "lowest common denominator" comes frequently to mind. If, as I believe, the work of newspapers has been essential, vital and important for democracy and for straightforwardness in public and private life, it cannot be restricted by statutory activity. We must rely on self-regulation and on the adjudications of the Press Complaints Commission; and we must hope that the editors themselves will "cool it" and not print some of the terrible things which we all know they do print in the interests of their right to publish so many articles that are absolutely vital.
Lord Skidelsky: My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, for giving the House an opportunity to discuss the role of the press in a free society. As her powerful and deeply felt speech made clear, it is a topic of high importance, but also one of great perplexity. I think that there is general agreement, both in this House and outside, that the intrusion of the press into private lives has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. But it is damned
We on this side of the House are unconvinced of the need for or desirability of a privacy law, which is one of the remedies canvassed for this situation. Such a law would be available only to the rich and powerful (and not necessarily righteous), who would be able to pursue newspapers through the courts. Ordinary members of the public who had suffered unfair treatment at the hands of the press would be no better off. Privacy laws are quite general on the Continent of Europe, but they have very little effect. Moreover, it might be difficult to frame such a law so as to distinguish between unwarranted press intrusion and the legitimate rights and necessary inquiries of a free press.
I agree that the defamation laws are the most powerful remedies available in this country against misrepresentation. However, they are generally available only to the rich and powerful. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, mentioned a number of names. She might have included that of Sir Elton John, whom the press will now be very careful about pursuing after he was awarded £1 million. But those remedies are not readily available to most people.
So we are driven to the conclusion that a voluntary code of self-regulation, policed by a body such as the Press Complaints Commission, should be the most workable solution to the problem. My noble friend Lord Wakeham has made a powerful case for such a non-statutory body. He pointed out that it provides easy access for ordinary people; that nine out of 10 complaints are satisfactorily resolved; that it is raising standards by co-operation; and that there is a tough and effective new code of practice that has been put in place. I have examined that code, and on paper it is extremely impressive. It states that all members of the press have a duty to maintain the highest ethical and professional standards. It is designed to balance the protection of the rights of individuals with the public's right to know. But how the conduct of the press will evolve under the new, and supposedly tougher, code remains to be seen--
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