Royal Charter on Press Conduct

- Monday, 18th March 2013

 

Roll of magazines.

Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden, Conservative):

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on preventing us from going down the route of full-scale statutory legislation of the media. Undoubtedly, what he has achieved was the best possible measure that could command a majority in the House. I urge the House, however, to remember that when Members on both Front Benches agree, we invariably make our worst blunders because the normal adversarial process of criticising measures is put aside. I hope we will consider what may be wrong with this measure, as well as what may be right.

 

The Leveson inquiry was set up because of phone hacking and libel, both of which were and are against the law, and neither of which is tackled by this royal charter. Those who always—rightly or wrongly—wanted to legislate to control the press have seized on the abuses of hacking and libel to propose legislation that tackles quite other problems that they see and have always wanted to deal with.

 

I sympathise with those who have been victims of press abuse—I, my family and relatives have probably been subject to more defamation and intrusion than almost anybody else in this House. Only last month I sent another cheque for 20 grand to a charity in my constituency after the latest offensive defamation. I do not think, however, that we should automatically presume that those who have been victims of abuse have great expertise in legislative matters, or grant those of us who have been victims a licence to legislate without criticism. That is simply mawkish sentimentality and it has led the House to focus exclusively on the legal framework we are establishing—a royal charter versus statutory regulation —and not on the powers we are giving the regulator, or that the regulator will be able to give itself.

 

I asked the Hacked Off lobby group, which was lobbying me and saying that it was keen to answer my questions, what powers to prevent or require publication the regulator will be given by this royal charter, what sort of material it could prevent or require the publication of, and what limits there are to the sorts of material it could prevent or require publication of.

 

On first inspection, it appears that the charter can require prominent apologies for abuse of individuals. If that were all it could do, I would be fine with it. In my time, I have had a banner front-page headline apology—I forget which newspaper it was, but the bottom banner headline on the front page was, “We apologise to Peter Lilley”. I hope others get the same when they are similarly abused.

 

However, that is not all the charter can do—the powers go beyond that to enabling the regulator to do other things, such as requiring those who subscribe to publish a factual correction. That is a pretty dangerous step. We are giving a body the right to decide what is fact and what is true. At best, that is a recipe for multitudinous time-wasting complaints that something is factually incorrect; at worst, it will establish a mini, self-appointed “Ministry of Truth”, which can decide what is true and must be published and what is false and must be withdrawn.

 

We note that no similar powers are taken with respect to the BBC, which will never be required by an outside body to publish corrections when it is factually incorrect, as it frequently is—[Interruption.] Chris Bryant advises me how to get corrections, but it is difficult enough even to get a reply.

 

Chris Bryant (Rhondda, Labour):

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

 

Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden, Conservative):

No; I have got the hon. Gentleman’s point.

 

My third point is on prevention. The charter says:

 

“The board should not have the power to prevent publication of any material”.

 

I am not sure what the legal power of “should not” is. The charter also states that the board “should” be able to do other things.

 

Robert Buckland (South Swindon, Conservative):

My right hon. Friend raises an important point about the wording of the document. The document sets out the criteria for recognising the regulator, not the terms of reference for the regulator itself, which will be a separate matter for the independent regulator. That is why the word “should” is used.

 

Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden, Conservative):

My hon. Friend reinforces my point. The document does not prevent the regulator from preventing publication; it says merely that publication “should” be prevented by someone else if they get around to it.

 

In any case, since the regulator can offer advice to editors of subscribing publications on how they should best comply with the code, and punish editors with fines of up to £1 million if they subsequently do not follow such advice, it effectively means that the regulator has the considerable power to prohibit or discourage publication.

 

The final question I asked Hacked Off was whether there were any limits in the measure as to how far the body and the code can go in future when it is annually reviewed. Each time it will be made more intense and its scope will be extended because that is how regulators work—they always increase their powers. As far as I could work out from Hacked Off’s rather incoherent reply, there are no limits to the powers that the body can grant itself or the extent to which it can go.

 

It find it worrying that we are, so far with no discussion, setting up a body with open-ended powers. It will have the ability to levy £1 million fines and effectively to deprive people of a livelihood if they break the code it establishes—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend Mr Carswell says, like the Climate Change Act 2008, which we have subsequently learnt to regret, the charter has the support of those on both Front Benches.

 

I hope that when the body is established, a lot of media organisations will have the courage to follow The Spectator and stand aside from it and remain free while, hopefully, adopting the highest standards in how they publish and how they treat the public.

 

 

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Royal Charter on Press Conduct

 

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