Parliament & Politics: Criticism of press dismissed as a bluff

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Indy Politics
TALK OF Government action to toughen up on intrusive newspaper reporting was dismissed as containing 'a good deal of bluff' when the literal press barons defended their industry in the House of Lords.

Lord Deedes, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, said that it was better to be blunt: 'The press did the Government pretty well in the last election. And no government in its senses bites the hand it feels has fed it.'

Detailed reporting of the marital difficulties of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the Tory bias of most of the press manifest in the April election, has added meat to the review of the first 18 months' work of the Press Complaints Commission and self-regulation by newspapers.

The probationary period came to an end on Tuesday and the review will be set up by David Mellor, Secretary of State for National Heritage. But replying to a debate on the commission, the junior minister Viscount Astor said: 'The Government remains extremely reluctant to intervene in the traditional freedoms enjoyed by the press; any change in this longstanding policy would be of great constitutional significance.'

Opening the debate, Lord Bonham-Carter, a Liberal Democrat, ridiculed the excuse of newspaper proprietors that the 'blatant political bias' of the tabloids in the last election was 'harmless' and did not influence readers. It was 'preposterous' to think Conservative prime ministers distributed honours to editors and proprietors who had no influence whatsoever.

But Lord Stevens of Ludgate, chairman of United Newspapers - which owns the Daily Express - said it was 'a rough business' and always had been. He thought the behaviour of the country's 2,000 newspapers gave little cause for concern. 'Laws to gag newspapers, albeit based on some well- meaning wish to protect privacy, would cripple newspapers' ability to unmask wrong-doing.'

Ennobled in 1987 by the then Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative newspaperman asked how a free press worthy of the name could have ignored the recent book on the Princess of Wales. Criticism of coverage of the troubled marriage was of tone rather than content, he suggested.

This view was shared by his political opposite, Lord Ardwick, former editor of the Daily Herald, who said he would have published the royal story but presented it 'more gravely'. It was not justifiable to report in detail 'every spat or act of apparent coldness or rejection' and even less to go into the Princess's nervous problems and alleged attempts at suicide.

The opinion of those who had, in Lord Ardwick's words, 'given their hearts to the old black art', was summed up by Lord Deedes: 'There is a certain flaccidity in the public's attitude towards the press. They deplore the cruel reporting of some events, but they read it avidly.'

The strongest call for legislation on privacy came from Lord Wyatt of Weeford, a crossbencher and columnist for the News of the World.