I welcome the recall of Parliament. I am only sorry that we are not being recalled to discuss the problems of the eurozone, the slowdown in the world economy in the face of higher energy prices, and the famine in east Africa. We may well have to be recalled in August to discuss the first of these issues.
We are here today to discuss, among other things, the relationships between politicians and the media. It behoves us all, therefore, to declare any connections with the media in general and News International in particular. I was going to say that I had none, but my wife reminded me that in 1997 The Times supported my bid for the leadership of the Conservative party. In view of the fact that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) discovered and the Leader of the Opposition will discover, becoming Leader of the Opposition after 12 years in power is a poisoned chalice, it might be thought that endorsing me was more a malicious act than a reason for me to feel any obligation. Anyway, The Times subsequently precipitated my departure from the Front Bench by publishing no fewer than 16 hostile articles critical of my Butler memorial lecture-the first time it had ever received such attention in The Times. I think therefore that my slate is clean as far as Murdoch is concerned, which is just as well because I might say some things that are mildly favourable to News International.
There has been great outrage in this country over the hacking scandal and Milly Dowler, but I am worried that it is being used by some people who want to shackle the freedom of the press, which would put not only our freedom in danger but a major industry and employer in this country at risk. Politicians tend to suffer from the delusion that the press and the media have far more power than they do-the power to swing votes. In fact, readers do not take instructions from editors. When The Sun had been backing the Tories for a decade and claiming, “It’s the Sun wot won it”, a survey found that a majority of readers of The Sun thought that it was a Labour-supporting newspaper. Readers who are interested in politics choose their newspaper because it has congenial political views; the rest are largely uninfluenced by an editor’s views. Successful editors follow their readers, not vice versa.
None the less, we in the House tend to be subject to this delusion, and none more so than those on the left of politics. The reason is that the left needs an explanation for why the majority of ordinary people do not share its views on the EU, crime, family, welfare and taxes. Those on the left conclude, as they have to, that people must have been indoctrinated, and clearly the indoctrinator-in-chief is Rupert Murdoch and News International. I have looked through the literally hundreds of e-mails that I have received on this issue. Only one mentioned Milly Dowler; one other expressed outrage about hacking. All the others were about Rupert Murdoch, News International and even Fox News, which does not even operate over here, and about its size, its share of the market, its views and its foreign ownership. These are legitimate concerns, but they are partisan.
I do not believe that perception is all; substance is the most important thing, along with following the law, which is what I believe the Government did.
Labour Members have expressed no concern today about the media share held by the BBC, about the behaviour of The Mirror, which was often implicated by Nick Davies in his investigation, or about the ownership of the Standard or The Independent. I think that we need to recognise that the press do not have the power that people suppose. It does not swing votes-perhaps a few-and it does not determine popular views but follows them. The one important power that the press have is the power to tell the truth. All credit should go to Nick Davies of The Guardian for his investigations, both on this particular issue and more widely. Sadly, his searing critique of the media, “Flat Earth News”, received remarkably little coverage from his colleagues in the media and appallingly little interest from the political class in the House. At its launch in this House, I was one of only two Members of the House of Commons who attended to hear his views. But we should listen, because he says that there is wrongdoing in many organs of the press other than News International.
Having listened, we should be extremely wary of believing that the solution is to burden the media with more regulation and with statutory controls. Hacking is already illegal-we do not have to pass laws to make it illegal. However, such things as intrusion on personal grief, though repugnant, are not justiciable. Bias and distortion are regrettable, but they are not really justiciable unless we are to set up censorship of the press. We should be very wary of going down that road, and we should not get carried away or allow partisan concern about the views expressed by one player in the media to be used in the political process to damage that player or the freedom of the press.