Lord Watson of Wyre Forest Portrait Lord Watson of Wyre Forest (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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.

--- Later in debate ---
We then come to the question of SLAPPs and Section 40. I think there is agreement across the Committee that SLAPPS have been a remarkable evil. There is a great deal of cross-party agreement for a Private Member’s Bill that has government support, which was originally an amendment to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, and I hope it will continue whatever Government are in power. All that I can say is that if I were one of the people identified in an excellent book by David Hooper about the problem with SLAPPs, if I was inclined to bring one of these strategic cases, I would be reassured by the provisions of Section 40, even the modified provisions suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, knowing that newspapers would be trembling at the possibility of a Section 40 provision or something similar, or the right to reply in the circumstances put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Watson. We should not automatically assume that those who publish newspapers, whether local or national, have bottomless coffers. We must get away from the concept of powerful press barons against the poor minnows who sue them. It is not as straightforward as that.
Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
- Hansard - -

Is it not the case that 80% of our media is owned by five billionaires?

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not precisely sure of the figures. Certainly, the ownership of the press is a matter of record. I am not in a position to respond to that. It is perfectly true that it is a relatively minor group of people. I am not sure quite what that has to do with Section 40. We are talking about whether someone can make a complaint adequately and whether that regulator is independent. I ask the Committee to express the view that it is an independent regulator. There is a manifesto commitment. It is time that this provision is repealed. I understand from what I have read in an interview with the shadow Secretary of State that the Labour Party does not intend to amend the current system of press regulation. I look forward to hearing reassurance that this important Bill, including this provision, will be the subject of discussions in the wash-up.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
- Hansard - -

Can the Minister deal with the question I raised on how poor people can pursue a case if they do not have the legal means to get satisfaction through the courts?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The landscape has changed a great deal since these debates were had. There are multiple routes for people to do it, and we think that that is right. The debate is one that has gone on for a great deal of time. Passionate though the contributions have been today, they have not significantly added to the debate that has gone on for a long time. I have little more to add.