(1 year, 11 months ago)Commons Chamber
I find myself in a great deal of agreement with the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan), who has put the case for press freedom extremely clearly. I begin by making an essentially ancestral declaration of interest: my father was involved with newspapers for most of his professional life, and I have received by comparison very modest payments from some newspapers for some works that I have provided for them over my time in Parliament.
At the heart of this Bill are three clauses—primarily clauses 168 and 169—that came in from the other place and fundamentally attack the freedom of the press. There is widespread agreement on the need to regulate the digital economy and the ownership of data effectively. There is cross-party agreement on that, and I doubt that there will be a Division this evening. However, the freedom of the press and freedom of speech are absolutely at the heart of our democracy. Members of Parliament should remember that those freedoms will be exercised in a way that does not always provide hagiographies for us. Quite understandably, newspapers will say critical things of people on the Government Benches and of people on the Opposition Benches. Sometimes they will be fair; sometimes they will be unfair. Sometimes we will read something and think that we have made a mistake; sometimes we will read it and know that the newspaper has made a mistake. That is the flotsam and jetsam of political life. For every piece in the Daily Mail that upsets Opposition Members, there will be something in the Daily Mirror or The Guardian that upsets us. That is how political life works, and we surely are not sufficiently of the snowflake generation that we should mind about that. That is how political life must and should go.
When we look at clauses 168 and 169, however, we know from our history that one of the tactics of dictatorial regimes is to have to punitive damages levied on newspapers that do not do what they want—a system whereby if a paper loses a libel action, it is effectively closed down. Why do such regimes do that? They do it so that they can have the pretence of freedom of speech, but with the reality of control. In the 18th and 19th centuries here, libel laws were used to prevent the press from exercising the freedom that we think of as a constitutional birth right. We know that the Americans, when writing the bill of rights to their constitution, made the second amendment a clear statement of freedom of speech. Why? It was in response to the abuses that they thought were taking place in the United Kingdom at that point. They put it in because they were worried about such things as the persecution of John Wilkes and his being sentenced to prison not for what he did, but for what he said. We see that being restored in clauses 168 and 169, with the outrageous, monstrous idea that if a paper prints something that is entirely accurate—every dot and comma is true—but has not bended the knee to officialdom, the fine will be to pay its own costs and the costs of the party about whom it has told the truth.
The hon. Member for Keighley referred to the Daily Mail and the Lawrence affair. That terrifying right-wing newspaper, which I read every day and enjoy, exposed the murderers of Stephen Lawrence in a way that required it to say things about the murderers that, until double jeopardy laws were changed, could never be proved in a court. What if this law had existed then and those people, whom we now know were guilty of murder, had sued the Daily Mail for saying something that was true? What if the Daily Mail had had to pay the costs of murderers? That is what their noble lordships have put into this Bill.
This is more serious on a day-to-day basis than the worst case that I can think of. We know the weakness of our local papers and how they struggle hand to mouth, but how easy would it be, for example, for my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), who is no longer in his place, to take to court the journal that he does not like because it said inaccurate things about him. It is fair enough for him not to like them, but if an hon. Member took a local paper to court, that local paper would be insolvent, because many of them do not have powerful parents behind them. Many of them—I am thinking of some in my constituency—are run by entrepreneurial individuals trying to make a reasonable living. The threat of having to pay double costs would be sufficient to stop them printing a disagreeable story about us.
That is great. It means that in all Conservative seats, no disagreeable things will be published about Conservatives; and in all Labour seats, the same will be true. Therefore, I will remain the representative of North East Somerset forever and ever—amen, amen, alleluia—and the hon. Member for Keighley remains in Keighley likewise. As it happens, we both think that is fundamentally wrong and an attack on democracy.
Free speech is not there so that Rupert Murdoch, a man I greatly admire, can make a great deal of money; it is not there so that the noble Lord Rothermere can, likewise, make a decent living; it is there because it is the pillar of democracy. If we do not have free speech, how will we expose corrupt Governments, incompetent politicians and—I dare say there are some occasionally—Governments who make mistakes? Councils that get things wrong, errors that are made and dishonesties that are performed, how will they be reported if every one of us can shut down our local newspaper just by saying that we will go to court and the newspaper will have double costs?
The proponents of clauses 168 and 169 will say, “That’s all very well, but there is IMPRESS.” What is the fundamental principle that has prevented newspapers from signing up to IMPRESS? I was one of 13 MPs who voted against the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which allowed this to happen, and I was absolutely right to do so. The principle is that a free press is one that cannot be regulated by the state, and an application to be approved by a regulator approved by a royal charter is regulation by the state. That is not comparable to the judges or other independent organs of the state, because the judges are part of the state—they are simply independent from this place and from the Executive. The whole point of the press is that it is not in any way part of the state. Quite understandably, no serious newspaper of the left or of the right has been willing to bend the knee to IMPRESS, and nor should it.
Let us now turn to IMPRESS, what causes it, what its origins are and who funds it. It is a scandal of our time that their noble lordships have made an amendment that has been pushed and harried through by perhaps one of the most disreputable figures in British public life. I refer, of course, to Mr Max Mosley, who has provided £3 million for IMPRESS and who took a libel action against the News of the World when it said he had indulged in Nazi-themed orgies. The News of the World was wrong: the orgies were not Nazi-themed. They were orgies, but they were German-themed. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for saying those shocking things in front of you, but that is what happened.
The News of the World lost, and it was deemed that Mr Mosley’s privacy had been invaded. Before that, few of us had heard of him, except we knew vaguely of his involvement in Formula 1 and we knew his father had been a Member of Parliament—a Labour Member of Parliament, as it happened—and had then set up the British Union of Fascists.
But we did not know that Mr Max Mosley himself held views—or, he claims, had in the past held views—that no reputable person could possibly hold. Views that are so repellent that, though I read them out because it is important to understand what underpins IMPRESS, I do so with considerable reluctance. Mr Mosley was the authoriser of a leaflet, and because we have stood for Parliament, we all know the importance of a leaflet’s authoriser.
I have the most wonderful agent, Margaret Brewer from Somerset. She was referred to by The Sunday Times as a “flinty rural matron”, and indeed she is. Nothing goes in my leaflets without her approval. People may think I am independent-minded, but I have not a view that has not been approved by Mrs Brewer. We all know how this works. If our agent does not approve it, it does not go in. What did this leaflet say? As I say, this is so appalling that I am reluctant to read it out in Parliament. Under a heading of “Protect your health”, it said:
“There is no medical check on immigration. Tuberculosis, VD and other terrible diseases like leprosy are on the increase. Coloured immigration threatens your children’s health.”
That is the view of the funder of IMPRESS. It is little wonder that our free press does not want to be associated with such a man. It is little wonder that, to its credit, the Labour party has now refused to take any further funding from this man, but IMPRESS has not. IMPRESS has not condemned this man. It has not said it will refuse further funding from the charitable trust he set up purely and specifically to keep IMPRESS running. IMPRESS has done nothing of this kind. It has a reputation of its own, and there is a certain irony in this; its chief executive is a man called Jonathan Heawood, and he tweeted, of all things, that the Daily Mail was “a neo-fascist rag”. Dare I say that he might know a good deal more about neo-fascists than one had thought when that tweet was originally circulated?
We are suggesting, under clauses 168 and 169, that that most precious thing that underpins, protects and gives us our democracy should be sacrificed to the honour of a man who has waged a campaign against freedom of the press because it exposed his perversions. That is the long and short of it. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), the deputy leader of the Labour party and shadow Secretary of State, said that Mr Mosley does not hold those views any more—well, how gracious of him. But how fortunate we are that our free press has exposed those views, so that we know them in the context of the debate we are having today. I say to Opposition Members that any of them who go through the Lobby at a later stage to vote in favour of those clauses are voting to support Max Mosley, his abhorrent views and his money. Those of us who believe in freedom will vote them down.