Introducing the Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill, Clive Soley, Labour MP for Hammersmith, said citizens had a right to expect their news to be reported accurately. 'There is no such thing as inaccurate news. There is only disinformation.' Several MPs voiced their anger at 'horrendous doorstepping' by the press and telephone bugging. But Mr Soley warned that a privacy law without a press freedom law could prevent good investigative journalism.
MPs from both sides of the House pointed to problems defining 'accuracy', particularly in unsourced or interpretative articles. Alan Howarth, a former Conservative minister, said governments systematically denied or distorted information to the press.
'Politicians do their very best to manipulate the press and lead it by the nose. Is it fitting then that we should legislate to establish a statutorily-based authority whose job it would be require the press, under compulsion of powerful sanctions, to print the truth?' Mr Howarth, like most MPs, was none the less keen to see the issue debated in detail in committee.
Robert Key, Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage, said Tory MPs were free to vote as they wished, but made plain the Government would not allow the Bill to pass in anything like its present form.
The measure was 'premature and misconceived' and contained 'major defects', he said. 'The new press authority, for example, would have wide-ranging duties to promote ethical standards among the press and to issue advice and guidance, but it is given no powers to enforce its codes of practice or any other guidance material.'
Mr Key reiterated the Government's misgivings about the more wide-ranging statutory complaints tribunal, to replace the Press Complaints Commission, proposed by Sir David Calcutt in his review of self-regulation. Though it had not been ruled out, establishing a statutory body would be a step of 'some constitutional significance departing from the traditional approach to press regulation in this country . . . The Government would be extremely reluctant to pursue that route.'
Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool and former director of communications for the Labour Party, asked why, if statutory regulation had not been ruled out, the Prime Minister had let it be known through his press secretary to the parliamentary lobby that he had decided against it. 'Was it because he sensed Kelvin MacKenzie's tanks rolling down Whitehall towards Downing Street?'
Mr MacKenzie, editor of the Sun, was the butt of repeated jibes in the day-long debate. Mr Soley noted that Rupert Murdoch's News International, which owns the Sun and the Times, had said any employee who breached the PCC's code of conduct for journalists would be fired. 'So I'm looking forward to Kelvin MacKenzie giving himself notice.'
Robin Corbett, for Labour, said the press should embrace the aims of the Bill - stated as requiring newspapers 'to present news with due accuracy and impartiality'. Labour sought a middle way between self- regulation, which it was doubtful would ever work as intended, and a government-run licensing system.
Quentin Davies, Conservative MP for Stamford and Spalding, denounced bugging, long-range photograpahy and the theft of letters by the press. 'What we have here is the use. . . in the 1990s of the methods more usually associated with the operations of secret police in totalitarian societies.'
Former Tribune editor Chris Mullin, the Labour MP for Sunderland South who campaigned for the release of the Birmingham Six, said he had a headline 'Loony MP backs bomb gang' on his wall. Far from protecting people, the press 'hounded dissidents' for the state.
Mr Howarth, MP for Stratford-on-Avon, said one important reason for inaccuracies was that few, if any, politicians were 'systematically seeking to lodge in the minds of the press a complete version of things which does justice to both sides of the argument'.
All governments were great culprits. 'Knowledge is power. They therefore deny information to the public. Governments make highly selected information available and steer interpretation on the part of the press often in unattributable guidance.'
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