Debates between Lord Faulks and Baroness Fleet during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 22nd May 2024
Media Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stageLords Handsard

Media Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Baroness Fleet
Baroness Fleet Portrait Baroness Fleet (Con)
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My Lords, I speak in opposition to these amendments and will voice support for the repeal of Section 40, which is long overdue. I heard the attack of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on newspapers. I wonder what Lord Brittan might have replied.

As a former newspaper editor, my support for repeal is predicated on the simple principle that any state control or direct influence over a newspaper’s editorial content is anathema to a well-functioning democracy. A newspaper’s fundamental purpose is to speak truth to power and to expose wrongdoing. The very existence, let alone the implementation, of Section 40 puts that key democratic function at risk.

We must remember that we are debating this pernicious provision in the context of a legal environment where newspapers already have to self-censor and spike stories due to the threat of financial ruin, with the rich and powerful bringing strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, as they are known. Section 40 would amount to state licensing of these lawsuits, with the rich and powerful able to force newspapers out of business for having the temerity to print the truth. This “truth tax” would be particularly devastating for local publishers, but even the better-resourced national titles would struggle to stay afloat if exposed to unlimited legal costs, even in cases that they won.

Criminal tycoons have frequently used the libel laws to silence their critics, control adverse publicity and suppress the truth about themselves. Among the worst offenders were Robert Maxwell and Mohamed Al Fayed. They set the scene and have been followed by others. To conceal their own criminality, global corporations, law firms and Russian oligarchs have threatened the media by exploiting Britain’s libel laws. Fortunately, some media owners, including Rupert Murdoch, risked millions of pounds to defeat those seeking to assert that their lies are the truth, but Section 40 would make any resistance futile: the rich would own their “truth” and newspapers would pay for criminals to peddle their lies.

Of course, the other side of this debate will claim that Section 40 attempts to protect publishers by giving state-regulated titles protection from legal costs. Yet Section 40 would in fact force publishers to choose between freedom from the state and freedom from the rich and powerful who try to bury their wrongdoing through abuse of the UK’s legal system. Therefore, even Amendments 84 and 85, which seek to repeal the part of Section 40 that penalises independent publishers while retaining the cost incentive to become state regulated, should not be countenanced.

SLAPPs require a legislative solution, and there is a Private Member’s Bill currently going through Parliament seeking to do just that, but the idea that fundamental press freedoms should be sacrificed to achieve this is repugnant. As a group of press freedom organisations in support of repeal, including RSF, English PEN and the Society of Editors, said yesterday:

“Journalists face a myriad of threats and challenges but their mission of holding power to account and reporting difficult or uncomfortable truths has never been more important”.

By repealing Section 40, we will not remove all those myriad threats, but we will at least ensure that it will not be the British state itself that inhibits a newspaper’s ability to print the truth without fear or favour.

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I think my interests have already been well and truly declared in this debate but, for the avoidance of doubt, I have been the chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation since 2020. I am not sure how appropriate it is for a regulator to extol its own virtues in a debate, and I do not propose to do so, but in view of the very trenchant attack on IPSO from a number of quarters, I think it may be helpful to the Committee if a few facts were presented before it.

IPSO regulates 90% by way of circulation of the newspapers published in this country. There was an attack on the organisation and, effectively, on those who work there. The young men and women who conscientiously look at complaints without any political bias or anything other than the conscientious approach you would expect from young people like that would be surprised and disappointed by many of the allegations that have been made against them.

The decisions that are made by IPSO are all published on its website. Details of the reasoning behind those decisions are available. IPSO provides advisory notices which help people, not only well-known people, but ordinary people who fear intrusion by the press, which I think is a successful aspect of what IPSO does. There is a board and a case committee, a minority of which has press experience. These are people whose identity is capable of ascertainment by looking at the website. Anyone can see what a wide variety of people they are. To suggest that they are somehow in the pockets of the press is unworthy.

Recently, there was an independent review of IPSO by a distinguished civil servant, Sir Bill Jeffrey. I invite critics of IPSO to read his report and his view of its independence. Independence is, of course, extremely important in a regulator.

As to the suggestion that effectively we reject the vast majority of complaints, of course many of the complaints that are made—