Leveson Inquiry

- Thursday, 29th November 2012

 

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Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden, Conservative): The two scandals that gave rise to this inquiry were phone hacking and bribing the police, both of which are against the criminal law. Now, some 90 arrests have been made. Strangely, however, Lord Leveson concludes:

 

"More rigorous application of the criminal law…does not and will not provide the solution."

 

Instead he goes off on building proposals for what would ultimately be statutorily underpinned regulation, which is largely irrelevant to what has happened. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on not going down that route, as that would not solve the problems that gave rise to the inquiry.

 

David Cameron (Prime Minister; Witney, Conservative): I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's support. I would, however, make the point that, while the press must always act within the law—they are subject to the criminal law, the civil law and the laws on data protection, and that is vitally important—there is also a role for strong, independent regulation. Those victims should not have had to wait for action through civil litigation, and they should not have had to wait until the criminal actions were taken. A proper regulatory system could have protected more of those people and prevented many more of them from becoming victims in the first place.

 

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Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Does the right hon. and learned Lady recognise that the inquiry was set up because of two scandals—phone hacking and the bribing of police—both of which are against the law and neither of which will be tackled by the form of state intervention she is talking about?

 

Ms Harman: The inquiry was set up—I congratulate the Prime Minister on setting it up, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on demanding it—not only because the criminal and civil law were broken, but because the press demonstrably had not abided by their own standards that they set out in their code of conduct. To stop that happening again, we must decide who overseas the regulator, because currently no one does.

 

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Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Two questions must be asked of any and every proposal for legislation. The first is what problems it will solve and the second is what problems it will create.

 

First, the problems that gave rise to the Leveson inquiry were phone hacking, bribing and outrageous criminal libel. Those are already against the law or legal redress exists for them. The problem was a failure to enforce the law. Leveson boldly dismisses those issues in asserting, without adducing any evidence, that "More rigorous application of the criminal law…does not and will not provide the solution."

 

Of course it will. It is now, belatedly, doing so. Scores of people have been arrested and face serious charges. That is a powerful deterrent against any repetition.

 

The apparatus of independent regulation backed by statute, which Leveson proposes, would have no powers to address the very problems that he was supposed to be dealing with. Indeed, it could not do so, because they are matters for the police and the judiciary. His solution would not have prevented or provided punishment for the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone, the payments to police by the News of the World or the vile libel by the Sunday Express of the McCanns. Indeed, Leveson states in his recommendations that "The Board should not have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time".

 

The board could not, therefore, have stopped that libel.

 

If Leveson had acknowledged that, it would have truncated his report, so he went ahead and proposed a regulatory structure that, amazingly, does not specify the problems with which it is supposed to deal. It is a solution looking for a problem. That, in my experience, is a dangerous thing to create. It would have powers to draw up a code of practice, but Leveson does not spell out what the contents of the code should be. The independent regulator, with the approval of its statutory minder, but not of this House, would be able to select the problems that it tackled.

 

The second question is what problems the proposal might create. Leveson was goaded into making complex proposals by the two most dangerous phrases in the political lexicon: "Something must be done" and "The status quo is not an option." That is the mantra of those in the commentariat who have no idea what should be done, but who want to sound positive. I have little sympathy for the newspapers that invariably demand unspecified Government interference to solve any problem and now find themselves hoist by their own petard. The status quo, however unsatisfactory, is sometimes less bad than all the alternatives. Churchill said that democracy is the worst kind of government except for all the alternatives, and I believe that a free and unregulated press, with all its failings, is the worst kind of media except for all the alternatives, which, by necessity, involve state regulation.

 

I do not have a rosy view of the press and I suffered from them repeatedly over 20 years. I remember the "back to basics" initiative, when John Major's use of that phrase was taken by the media as advocating family values, even though he made no reference to that. The press claimed it was their duty to investigate the private life of every Cabinet Minister. They called on all my neighbours, offering them money if they had "any filth about Lilley." They offered rewards in the local pub opposite my house for people who knew anything about me or could see any "goings on" in our bedroom. Worst of all, the Daily Mirrormade its front-page splash a story about me visiting my nephew who was dying of AIDS. It was intended to smear me in some vile way, but it simply caused immense distress to my sister. It was a vile time so I know how horrible a free press can be.

 

Had the strong, independent regulator underpinned by statute that we are considering existed, would—and should—it have called off the press hounds during "back to basics"? There were no calls from the Opposition Benches for the then regulator to do so. I do not believe that a regulator should have the power to do so, but if it did have such a power, the decision would be intensely political. We would be handing over to the regulatory body a political power of which we need to be aware.

 

Sir Gerald Howarth: Those of us who have sympathy with Leveson's case are not seeking to hand over powers. We are seeking to establish—I think there is common ground across the House on this—whether the press should set up a robust self-regulatory body. There is nothing from our experience of the past 70 years that offers any confidence that it is capable of doing that, which is why some of us believe—as Lord Justice Leveson said—that there should be some statutory validation of that self-regulatory body.

 

Mr Lilley: I am in favour of the press having better standards but the best form of regulation is what we saw—The Guardianexposing the failures of the News of the World; "Panorama" exposing the failures of "Newsnight" —not a regulatory body, whether or not underpinned by the state. My hon. Friend is uncharacteristic. Those who jump to the conclusion that we need state-backed regulation assume that that is always an improvement on voluntary actions and arrangements. Such faith is a triumph of hope over experience and people forget the law of unforeseen consequences. Regulation invariably has unforeseen—but not necessarily unforeseeable—consequences.

 

Jim Dowd: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

 

Mr Lilley: I will not at the moment. Lord Leveson proposes giving a state regulator the power and duty every two or three years to review and approve—or disapprove—the code and how it is implemented and enforced by the regulator. That is either a substantial power with important consequences or a trivial power with negligible consequences. The latter is unimportant so why insist on it? If the power is significant and will have substantial ramifications and consequences for the way the regulator behaves, the content of the code and the way it is enforced, we should look at it very carefully.

 

I know from many years of studying regulation that one consequence of regulators being given the power to review and prescribe detail is that the regulator—the state supervisor—will at every biennial or triennial review demand not less but more and stricter regulation. Has my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) ever known a regulator demand less regulation rather than more? It is a recipe for regulatory creep and increasingly detailed specification by the state supervisor of what the so-called independent regulator must do.

 

The other consequence that some fear from a regulatory system that is overseen and supervised by a statutory regulator is that the regulator will nudge the code and its enforcement in line with the prejudices of the Government of the day. I doubt that that would be the immediate consequence, although it could be the consequence in the long term, but the statutory body that oversees how the regulatory apparatus works would follow either the Government's prejudices or its own. We want to beware of that. If the statutory body is like the regulatory structures we normally set up, we will have a pretty clear idea how it will behave, but by definition it will be outside the direct control of the House, so hon. Members will have no say in it.

 

Mr Raab: I have an objection in principle to a statutory body or a body underpinned by statute both making and enforcing the rules. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that such a blurring of powers in the new body risks arbitrary decision making and is inimical to the rule of law?

 

Mr Lilley: Exactly; that is very much what I fear if the statutory body, following its own prejudices, determines the contents of the code and how it is enforced. Such a body would almost inevitably be made up of the sort of people who run and control the BBC. The BBC Trust has got into trouble for telling untruths about how it decided there should be unbalanced coverage of climate change and many other things, so we know the sort of prejudices such bodies have.

 

Lord Leveson specifies only one item of the code that the new body should contain. He says that it should "equip" the "body with the power to intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation."

 

The body will be a politically correct one, enforcing politically correct standards on the media and press.

 

The body will also have the power to establish a "ringfenced enforcement fund, into which receipts from fines could be paid, for the purpose of funding investigations."

 

t will therefore have an incentive to levy fines, and in that way it will carry out investigations to increase and enhance its power and control over the so-called independent regulator.

 

Chris Bryant: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

 

Mr Lilley: I am afraid I will give way only if the hon. Gentleman apologises for the way in which he has traduced my right hon. Friends.

 

Chris Bryant rose 

 

Mr Lilley: No. I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman.

 

The House should think seriously about setting up a body of statutory supervision that has detailed and substantial powers to influence how the so-called independent regulator behaves, and that has an incentive to enhance, increase and make more detailed that interference in regulation. The House will have no direct control over it, so it will therefore be an abnegation of the House's duty.

 

The free press is vile, but it is better to have a free press with all its failings than to have a state-controlled and regulated press. I hope we do not go down that route.

 

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George Eustice: Each and every one of those commissions and inquiries was sparked by the abuse of unaccountable power, and I would say that that is what we are seeing today. People sometimes say, "It was a newspaper that exposed phone hacking." They are right—one newspaper exposed phone hacking—but Lord Leveson is very clear on this: none of the other papers exposed it, and there was almost a conspiracy of silence. He says:

 

"There were what are now said to be rumours and jokes about the extent to which phone hacking was rife throughout the industry, but (with one sole exception) the press did nothing to investigate itself or to expose conduct which", if it had involved anybody else, "would have been subject to the most intense spotlight that journalists could bring to bear".

 

That one exception was Nick Davies from The Guardian, who wrote a story on 9 July 2009 saying that the huge scale of the settlements being paid to some people in respect of phone hacking suggested that a cover-up had taken place. What did the Press Complaints Commission do about it? Did it then think, "Perhaps we should take a second look at this and investigate it"? No, it did not. As Lord Leveson points out, the PCC "condemned the Guardian" for running the story, which is extraordinary. I think that the Leveson report was a good report.

 

Mr Lilley: My hon. Friend has criticised the press for the fact that insufficient of them exposed hacking, but can he confirm that the Leveson report—if implemented in full, as he supposes—would not have stopped this sort of hacking, and would not expose it and would not have powers to do so, as Lord Leveson makes absolutely clear? So what is the relevance of my hon. Friend's argument?

 

George Eustice: I do not think Lord Leveson does make that clear. The new body that he recommends would have powers of investigation, and that would deal with the culture which led to this criminality.

 

The central recommendation of Lord Leveson's report, which we must not lose sight of, is this: "In order to give effect to the incentives that I have outlined, it is essential"—not preferable or helpful but essential— "that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system".

 

I agree with Lord Leveson on that, because throughout his inquiry one question simply would not go away: how do we make a reality of independent self-regulation without some kind of underpinning in statute? In other words, "How do you create the incentives to be part of a body that can fine you and deliver stiff penalties against you?" There was no question but that Lord Hunt and Lord Black failed to answer that test. At one point, Lord Black was suggesting that we could perhaps restrict membership of the Press Association and that people who did not sign up to this new body could be denied access to Government briefings or to accreditation for events. That would be very much a closed shop system, which Lord Leveson completely rejects.

 

The truth is that to make this work we will need some kind of statute, because the contract system outlined by Lord Hunt would be inherently unstable. It was suggested that the contracts should last for no more than five years, but such contracts, which require what the legal profession calls a constant supervision, are very difficult to enforce in a court. After five years, newspapers would walk away from that system and we would be in the same boat as we are in now.

 

If the industry has failed to come up with an answer that does not require statute after 18 months of thinking about it, what does the Secretary of State think that it will come up with in the next six weeks? I am deeply sceptical that it will come up with an answer.

 

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Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): The Government were right to arrange this debate so speedily after the Prime Minister's announcement and statement last Thursday. It has provided an opportunity for the House quickly to express a view on the important issues of the Leveson report. We have heard 31 Back-Bench speeches over the last six and a half hours. I think that they have been exemplary, raising a range of issues and clearly examining those at the nub of Leveson's report, which have focused largely on statutory regulation.

 

The mood of the House has been thoughtful. I believe that we have been trying to edge towards consensus. If it was the Government's intention to have an early debate for those reasons, they have been successful. I can reflect, however, that there are certainly two different sets of views on the regulation issues.

 

I hope I do all those concerned a service when I say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech)—whose very good contribution highlighted the irony of his article being censored by the Manchester Evening News —coupled with the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) and my hon. Friend for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) made extremely good contributions supporting the tenor of the Leveson recommendations. I was particularly pleased to see them joined by the hon. Members for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and, not least, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). They all said that the points made by the noble Lord Leveson are worthy of consideration and either have their support or need to be examined in detail to help to secure tighter regulation of the press. I also believe that my right hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) were edging towards that position, having considered these matters in some detail.

 

There is obviously a range of other views. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), the hon. Members for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), the hon. Members for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and, indeed, the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) have some concerns about the Leveson approach. I understand that and I can see where they are coming from. I do not share their views, but they made a passionate case for them today. The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) focused particularly on the role of the Crown Prosecution Service, without supporting either side of the debate.

 

I will be honest in my opening strategy. I begin by sharing the starting point of the noble Lord Leveson. I do so because of the way in which the press can act, as Members will have heard from the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, in ways that I would not wish to support.

 

I support Lord Leveson's opening statement in the executive summary: "For the seventh time in less than 70 years, a report has been commissioned by the Government which has dealt with concerns about the press. It was sparked by public revulsion about a single action—the hacking of the mobile phone of a murdered teenager. From that beginning, the scope of the Inquiry was expanded to cover the culture, practices and ethics of the press in its relations with the public, with the police, with politicians and, as to the police and politicians, the conduct of each. It carries with it authority provided personally by the Prime Minister."

 

I think we have tested that first premise in a positive debate. My hon. Friends and the Members on the Government Benches who have spoken in support of Leveson's recommendations have done so with that first element of the executive summary at the forefront of their minds.

 

I express my view from this side of the House, but I am pleased to say that it has been expressed by the majority of Members on both sides of the House who have spoken today. I support the core recommendations of the Leveson report: I believe that there should be a new system of independent regulation of the press, guaranteed by law. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) have always said that they would support Leveson's recommendations if they were sensible and proportionate, and I believe that they are.

 

Mr Lilley: For the sake of clarity, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Opposition would accept a package of measures identical to those proposed by Leveson, except in one respect? Would they accept a powerful independent regulator, with powers to demand apologies, redress and corrections of inaccuracies, the only difference being that it would apply to this House rather than to the media?

 

Mr Hanson: I respect the way in which the right hon. Gentleman put his case today, but I believe that the debate is about the need for statutory underpinning of a regulatory system. Lord Leveson said clearly in his report that this was the seventh time in 70 years that we had examined the issue. I feel very strongly that we need to have cross-party talks and share what has emerged during today's necessary debate, but also that we should reach the conclusion which—as the Secretary of State will see when she reads the report of the debate—was reached by the majority of Members on both sides of the House, who have spoken in support of the Leveson recommendations.

 

 

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