All 1 Lord Faulks contributions to the Media Act 2024

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Wed 22nd May 2024
Media Bill
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Media Bill

Lord Faulks Excerpts
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—

Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
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Who appointed Mr Jeffrey?

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks
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The appointment of Sir Bill Jeffrey was the result of a decision by the board. The identity of the board is available to anybody who seeks to find out who is on the board. If by that question it is suggested that Sir Bill Jeffrey was some sort of tame civil servant, I think he would be surprised to hear that, and his history of accomplishment and independence is something which I would be surprised could be satisfactorily impugned.

I was dealing with the suggestion about a vast number of complaints being rejected. Of course, a case has to come within the remit. A number of people are discontented with things they read in the press, but they do not come within the remit of a complaint which can possibly provide a breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The editors’ code comes from a body where the minority is of press interest. Very few people criticise the editors’ code, whether they criticise the press or the regulator.

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Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
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Is it not the case that 80% of our media is owned by five billionaires?

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks
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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.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, I will just speak briefly, because I know that we want to get to Front-Bench spokesmen. A lot of detailed arguments have been advanced by those who have tabled amendments in this group and I think they reflect the detailed nature of the measures proposed. I have listened to those arguments and also heard some of the examples of people who have had bad experiences of the media. I sympathise with a lot of what has been said but, when it comes to matters of principle—and I believe that freedom of the press is a matter of principle—I also have the view that there are some circles that cannot be squared.

It is worth us just remembering that, only a couple of months ago, when we were debating foreign power ownership, Lord Ashcroft did a poll which showed that two-thirds of British people do care about freedom of the press. I think we can all agree that people might not always love or approve of everything done in or by the British media, but the principle of a free press, free from government interference, is something that matters to them. I believe it is a principle that serves the public interest and therefore one that Parliament must uphold. For that reason, I cannot support any of the amendments in this group and I will support my noble friend the Minister in resisting them.