Press curbs Bill blocked by Tory backbenchers: Labour MP's measure proposing legal right of correction and a statutory newspaper complaints authority is 'talked out' in Commons

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THE BACKBENCH press Bill which sought to establish a legal right to a correction and a statutory complaints authority to enforce it was killed off in the Commons yesterday.

The Bill's sponsor, Clive Soley, the Labour MP for Hammersmith, vowed that his campaign for accurate reporting would continue. Newspapers would not be able to go on printing 'disgraceful lies', he said.

Mr Soley illustrated his case for corrections with a front-page headline from the Sun after the abduction of Jamie Bulger on Merseyside. It declared 'Boy, 12, held for Jamie murder' though the accompanying story quoted the police as saying they were not holding anyone for murder.

There was a minor riot outside the boy's home. He was released after questioning but the family had to go to a secret address. Mr Soley said the child could have been wrongfully convicted. 'We don't have the right to put people in prison who are innocent in the name of press freedom.'

The Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill was given a Second Reading by 119 votes to 15 in January and had completed its Committee Stage. But, faced with Government opposition, it was never expected to reach the Statute Book and yesterday was 'talked out' on its Report Stage by a small group of Conservative backbenchers. It will remain on the Commons order paper but is now, in effect, dead.

Mr Soley accused one of the Tories, Peter Thurnham, MP for Bolton North-East, of allowing himself to be 'used' by News International, owners of the Sun and the Times, to try to block constructive debate on the Bill.

In a Commons motion, Mr Soley said Mr Thurnham 'not only colludes with News International in continuing to prevent genuine press freedom, but also allows the abuse of press power to continue wrecking the lives of ordinary citizens and denying the public the right to expect accurate news reporting'.

Rebutting the charge during the debate, Mr Thurnham said that in no way did he consider himself to have been used by News International. Mr Soley was 'grossly wrong'. An enormous number of organisations had made representations to him, including the Newspaper Publishers Association which opposed the Bill.

As to the Sun headline, Mr Thurnham said it was impossible to have news reporting on the scale there was in Britain without some errors. 'There will be casualties,' he said.

Restating the Government's objection, Robert Key, Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage, said: 'This Bill would introduce statutory control of newspaper content for the first time in peace time since the 17th century.'

The Government is due to produce a White Paper before the Commons breaks for the summer with its response to the Calcutt recommendations, but this will be directed more at privacy than inaccuracies.

Mr Key told the House: 'The Press Council and its successor body, the Press Complaints Commission, have not been effective regulators of the press.

'They've not been effective, particularly in the critical area of protecting people from unwarranted intrusion into their privacy.'

Robin Corbett, Labour's national heritage spokesman, said: 'If we are looking to this current breed of newspaper owners and proprietors to properly safeguard press freedom, I think we are wasting our time.'

(Photograph omitted)

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