Lord Watson of Wyre Forest Portrait Lord Watson of Wyre Forest (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and say to him that, while he unwisely backed the wrong horse, I know he is a very skilled and wise politician—too skilled to back the outcome of an election on day one. As I will talk about transparency today, I should declare an interest to the Committee, albeit a left field one: I am a current claimant in a voicemail interception litigation against News Group Newspapers.

To add to the surreal nature of this debate, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, I will address directly the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on the wash-up. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, was a fantastic substitute for the noble Lord, Lord McNally, whom we wish well with his back procedure, particularly because he appears to be the only senior leader of any political party who has shown spine in this basket of amendments. I hope to convince both Front Benches to follow in the footsteps of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, this evening.

It is appropriate to ask both Front Benches whether they intend to follow the convention of Parliament to not rush through controversial clauses in Bills in the wash-up procedure. We are probably all united in the Committee that, whatever we think about Clause 50, it is certainly controversial. I will offer two other arguments about why we should proceed with caution in the wash-up procedure on this. First, much of the Bill will interfere with a regulated market, and in doing that we owe it to the consumers and providers within that regulated market to give full parliamentary scrutiny at all stages. I warn the Front Benches that the last time I remember Parliament deciding to interfere with regulatory matters in a wash-up was in 2005 with the Gambling Act, of which the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, will be aware. Some 20 years later, we are still dealing with the consequences of that rushed-through legislation. There is a third reason why we should proceed with caution in the wash-up. To add to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about washing up: the electors now have us under the microscope, and if these clauses and amendments are rushed through by the Front Benches of both main parties, they will be airing their dirty linen in the wash-up, and that is a terrible start to a general election.

I have had sight of the letter from Sir Brian Leveson, quoted in this debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and others, and I can confirm that it is damning about the disingenuous arguments employed by the opponents of reform on this issue—and, it must be said, the Government. I speak to this group of amendments to make the case that, despite two manifesto pledges, in light of recent evidence not easily available to the Government at the time, the Government should pause to reflect on their proposal of Clause 50.

Many failures have been attributed to IPSO in this debate. I add one other: it failed to protect ordinary people thrust into the media spotlight after a bereavement. IPSO was recently found by the independent Press Recognition Panel to be failing children and the victims of crime caught up in newsworthy events. The Press Recognition Panel was set up by royal charter, under a system backed by all parties in both Houses where there is no input whatever from politicians in its appointment. It is far more independent than Ofcom or any other regulator. Do not forget that IPSO members are appointed by a panel that it appoints itself, and it is chaired by a former Government Minister. The IPSO board also has former editors appointed by the industry who have the power to veto, just like the old PCC. It is no wonder, then, that it sits idly by while some newspapers are still neck deep in disinformation, inaccuracy, intrusion and the monstering of innocent individuals.

As noble Lords have said, in its 10-year history IPSO has done a total of zero investigations of the type that Ofcom does all the time, and thus there have never been any sanctions—no investigations and no sanctions ever. It is true that the PCC did not have the power to investigate; IPSO has been given that power but has never used it. Nobody is holding these hugely powerful people to account. They do exactly as they like, with scant respect for basic human decencies, let alone their own codes, and there are no consequences. They have no predators, and that cannot be good for our country.

We know that some newspapers were hacking the phones not only of well-known people and their friends, employees and relatives but of murder victims and politicians, not because of some tip-off of corruption or wrongdoing but for two reasons, neither of which has a shred of public interest justification. The first of these was to sell newspapers: the privacy of thousands of people was sold for profit by newspapers systematically. The second was to manipulate politicians, as we appear to be seeing in the wash-up of this process today.

We now know that serious allegations have been made against News UK that members of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, including me, were hacked while it was investigating the company from 2009 to 2011. Gordon Brown has recently said that he believes he was hacked while Prime Minister and, even more egregiously, that News Corporation claimed, absurdly, that he and I were involved in conspiracy to acquire stolen company emails, which was why it deleted millions of emails and scratched its back-up disks during the police reinvestigation in 2011. Some newspaper groups have treated Parliament, the Leveson inquiry, the public and their own readers with contempt, and no one can have any confidence that IPSO, just a rebranded version of the discredited PCC, has the powers, or even the inclination, to identify and expose wrongdoing such as phone hacking or illegally obtaining private medical information or itemised phone records.

There is another serious issue that has come to light since Parliament set up Section 40: the way that some newspaper groups were found to have misled Parliament or lied to a public inquiry—or stand accused of doing so—and appear to have done so with impunity thus far. In the recent judgment of the High Court in the case of the Duke of Sussex and others v Mirror Group Newspapers, which is now owned by Reach plc, the judge found that members of the board and then legal department egregiously knew about, concealed and allowed to continue the industrial-scale criminal hacking and blagging that took place from the mid-1990s until at least the end of 2011—that is, during the Leveson inquiry and the Select Committee inquiries themselves.

The legal department was found to have lied to Leveson, and the evidence in the 2023 trial was rejected by the judge, who also found that the editors at the time knew about wrongdoing and concealed it—“without doubt”, in his words—and many lied to the Leveson inquiry.

As for News UK, in 2011, it was exposed as having lied for years, claiming that phone hacking was by only one rogue reporter on the news desk in 2005 and 2006. It was found in 2014, the year after the legislation that we are proposing to repeal today, that from 2000 to 2006 the whole news desk and the features desk were involved.

In 2014, after a public inquiry and passing that Bill, we learned that scores of people who had been convicted in stings by Mazher Mahmood, the “fake sheikh”, could have been innocent, when the trial of Tulisa Contostavlos collapsed and he was later convicted of trying to frame her. Dozens of his victims are appealing their convictions, and many bring hacking claims. Mr Mahmood was instructed to tail me for days when I served on the committee that started investigating phone hacking.

In 2016, the Privileges Committee of the Commons found that two senior executives had lied to the CMS Select Committee. Only yesterday, the managing judge in the News UK and News Corp hacking litigation allowed amendments to the claimants’ case to allege—these allegations are currently untested and denied or not admitted—that two very senior executives and several others lied to the Leveson inquiry and gave misleading evidence to Parliament.

I could go on, but I hope I have demonstrated that the suggestion that the press has cleaned up its act is for the birds, and that there remains a rotten core to many of our newspapers and a culture of impunity when it comes to their illegal behaviour.

For those reasons, I have tabled Amendment 87A and support the others in this group. They are compromises, all intended to move us closer to universal press membership of an effective, independent regulator which would protect the public from press wrongdoing in all its forms. Amendment 87A would introduce a new right of reply for the British public against misrepresentations in the press where the publisher is not a member of a truly independent and effective regulator.

Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow that speech from someone who has had direct contact with the media over many years and has been abused by them himself, but there are many other people who have been abused in a similar way. I support this group of amendments, but I must be clear that I would prefer Section 40 to be maintained and to cover the issues that we are all addressing now. It is better than nothing, but it is not really the sort of protection that we should offer the public.

The press barons say that there is no need for regulation. They point to IPSO and the courts, and ordinary people are supposed to use one of those organisations. Quite frankly, as we have heard, IPSO offers no protection. In the investigations it has carried out, 0.3% cases are upheld, so the accountability is non-existent there. It can fine up to £1 million, but it has not fined anybody so far. It is quite clear that it is not effective for anyone who has a case of abuse.

I will not talk about celebrities, but I will talk about a woman called Mandy Garner. I have done this before and will again. Mandy’s daughter, unfortunately, was the subject of a hit-and-run accident. That is a tragic affair anyway, but it was made worse when the Daily Mail got involved. It sent a reporter down to the area and secured CCTV coverage of the child’s death from one of the shopkeepers. It then carried the story and put the link to that child’s death online for its readers. When Mandy objected to that and took a complaint to IPSO, it told her to go and see the Daily Mail. She contacted it and, after six months, she had made no progress with her case at all and went back to the regulator. She told it that she was even more stressed out now because she had made no progress whatever over six months. What did IPSO say to that woman? It told her that, if she was stressed, perhaps she should drop the case and not proceed with it. That shows the level of independent calculation going on with that body.

We need protection not for celebrities, because they can go to court and can afford to spend millions of pounds on legal fees, as we have heard, but for Mandy and many hundreds of people like her who cannot. I ask the Minister, the Government and our Front Bench this: what protection are they going to give to the public—to a future Mandy? Quite frankly, in what is proposed today, there is no protection for Mandy and people like her. It is a disgrace on Parliament that politicians are bullied and threatened to act in a way that is counterproductive to having justice in our society.

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, I turn first to Amendments 83 and 86 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, which, if taken together, would intend not only to keep Section 40 on the statute book but to amend its subsections (1) and (2), so that the protections offered by subsection (2) apply not only to relevant publishers but to individuals employed by relevant publishers. This would protect journalists employed by news publishers which are members of regulators recognised by the Press Recognition Panel from having costs awarded against them in legal claims based on news-related material published by that publisher, regardless of the outcome.

As I understand it, the noble Baroness’s intention is that Section 40(3), which would make publishers that are not members of a PRP-backed regulator liable for costs in claims made against them, should not apply in the case of claims made against individual journalists employed by such publishers. If subsection (3) were to apply to such journalists, they would be unfairly held liable for the costs of claims, in contrast to their counterparts employed by members of a PRP-backed regulator. This is likely further to exacerbate the risks to media freedom and quality journalism posed by commencing Section 40.

The noble Baroness spoke powerfully against strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, which the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, invited me to say more on. We know that they are used as a deterrent to pursuing stories which expose wrongdoing due to the high costs involved with these lawsuits, making defending the case beyond the reach of those targeted by this form of litigation. The intention of her amendment appears to be to provide protection for only the cost of claims awarded against journalists employed by publishers that are members of regulators backed by the Press Recognition Panel, where material subject to the claim is news-related material published by the relevant publisher. As only one regulator, Impress, has sought approval by the Press Recognition Panel thus far, if enacted as amended in this way, Section 40 would protect only a small number of news publishers and journalists for the time being.

The Government believe that all journalists should be protected from SLAPPs, which are a pernicious form of litigation. That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, mentioned, the Government have supported the Private Member’s Bill introduced by Wayne David MP in another place, which had its Second Reading there on 23 February. Furthermore, it is why the Government have committed to protecting media freedom and the invaluable role of a free press in our society and democracy more broadly. As part of this, we are committed to independent self-regulation of the press. For this reason, we do not consider that measures penalising publishers which are not members of a Press Recognition Panel-approved regulator are necessary or proportionate. Their commencement would constitute an intrusion by the Government into the freedom of the press.

I turn to the other amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. Amendments 84 and 85 intend to remove only Section 40(3) of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and to commence the remainder of Section 40, including subsection (2). Subsection (2) would protect publishers which are members of regulators recognised by the Press Recognition Panel from being liable for court costs awarded against them in legal claims, regardless of the outcome. The amendment is to commence subsection (2) within two months of this Bill gaining Royal Assent. Accepting these amendments would be at odds with the Government’s clearly stated position to protect media freedoms and to repeal Section 40 in its entirety.

I turn to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Astor, whom I commiserate on his misfortune in the 5.30 pm race at Kempton Park. The Government have committed to a free and independent press and do not interfere with what the press can or cannot publish; that extends to endorsing regulators of which they should become members. Consulting on, with a view to creating, other incentives for the press to join a Press Recognition Panel-backed regulator that a consultation might identify would conflict with the Government’s position.

Indeed, the Government consulted on the repeal of Section 40 in its entirety in 2016 and the vast majority of respondents to that consultation backed repealing it. That was reflected in our last two manifestos. We therefore cannot delay repealing any part of the legislation that risks providing incentives for membership of an approved regulator. Incentivising a publisher to join specific regulators in any way is incompatible with protecting independent self-regulation of the press in the UK.

These amendments are unnecessary as the press regulation landscape has evolved since Section 40 was passed, as noble Lords have noted, with the establishment of two new press regulators and the decision of some publishers to use their own regulatory systems. In practice, as I say, the amendments would incentivise membership of Impress, as the sole UK regulator which has sought approval by the PRP. It is likely to lead to a chilling effect on publishers which choose not to join Impress. Accepting these amendments would not be compatible with the Government’s policy, so I cannot support them.

Amendment 87A tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Wyre Forest, would introduce a requirement on publishers which are not members of a Press Recognition Panel-backed regulator to publish a reply or a correction where they have published information containing a “significant factual inaccuracy”. The requirement is triggered by a demand made by an individual to whom the information relates. If the individual seeking the reply or correction is not satisfied with the publisher’s response, he or she would have the right to apply to the High Court for a determination of whether the publisher has complied with relevant parts of the section. The court may order the publisher to print a reply or correction, or to make another order as appropriate.

In practice, this amendment would incentivise membership of Impress and, as with the commencement of Section 40, it could disadvantage publishers which choose not to join it. For the reasons I have set out, I am not able to accept the amendments brought by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, or my noble friend Lord Astor and hope that they will not press them.

Lord Watson of Wyre Forest Portrait Lord Watson of Wyre Forest (Lab)
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As this may be the final opportunity before a possible change of Government, can I thank the Minister for his service to the country? He enjoys the support of all political parties on the creative industries. His contribution is immense and is deeply appreciated, particularly his support for the music sector. Can I press him a little on my question about whether the conventions of the parliamentary wash-up will be respected when it comes to controversial legislation?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for his kind words; he might be getting a little ahead of himself. It has been a pleasure to serve as Minister and I hope to continue to do so. I look forward to campaigning in defence of the arts and creative industries in the general election ahead. He will appreciate that I have been in the Chamber since the announcement was made, so I will have to disappoint him by saying that the discussions will be had in the usual channels and announcements will be made in the usual way.

Like other noble Lords, I was sorry to hear about the operation that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is having. I am sure we all wish him a speedy recovery, so that he can be on the campaign trail soon. His amendment, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, seeks to remove Clause 50 in its entirety. I refer noble Lords to the comments I made earlier on why the Government do not believe that an incentive to join a PRP-backed regulator is needed. The failure to repeal Section 40 in its entirety would be at odds with the Government’s manifesto commitment. For this reason, it is important that this clause stands part of the Bill.