Harriet Harman's speech to the Oxford Media Convention

23 January 2013

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Harriet Harman MP, Labour’s Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, said today at the Oxford Media Convention:

This time last year when we met:

  • Lord Justice Leveson was conducting his Inquiry.
  • Mark Thompson was Director-General of the BBC.
  • Jimmy Savile was a national treasure.
  • Jeremy Hunt was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and;
  • We were eagerly discussing what might be in the Communications Bill.

Today,

 

  • We’ve got the landmark Leveson Report.
  • Mark Thompson is no longer the Director-General of the BBC – and nor is the man who replaced him.
  • Jimmy Savile is now a national monster.
  • Following my calls for the sacking of Jeremy Hunt he's been promoted – Maria Miller is now our Secretary of State.
  • And it looks as if the Communications Bill is never going to materialise.


What hasn’t changed

But some things haven’t changed.

We still need to tackle the longstanding problems of wrongdoing in the press.

We still need to support the BBC, one of our most important national institutions.

We still need a strong DCMS. The department must not be weakened: if anything, its voice needs to be even stronger at the Cabinet table.

Leveson: the victims

The families who suffered press intrusion and gross violations of their privacy are still pressing for the changes that will protect people in the future from what happened to them.

The harassment, the character assassinations – laid bare before the Leveson Inquiry. These were not mere technical breaches of the rules, victimless crimes.

Just think for a moment about what those victims have been through.

Can you imagine anything worse than your three year-old daughter going missing – you pour your heart out into your diary as you struggle to live your life day to day - and then the most intimate contents of that diary are spread over a national newspaper?
Can you imagine anything worse than to be at your daughter’s bedside as she fights for her life and struggles to cope with paralysis – only to have newspapers reveal she was pregnant?

Can you imagine anything worse than fearing your missing teenage daughter has been murdered – your hopes rise that she might still be alive. But she wasn’t. And you then discover that the News of the World was hacking her voicemail?

These victims have gone through and are still going through unimaginable suffering. But despite that, they were prepared to relive those experiences in the full glare of publicity at the Leveson Inquiry, because they want change.

We often talk of walking a mile in someone’s shoes; none of us would want to walk even one step in theirs.

They remind us why the status quo, unsatisfactory for decades, can no longer be an option.

They want the implementation of the Leveson Report - and so do we.

We must act on Leveson’s proposals for substantial and lasting change.

Importance of a free press

Another thing that hasn’t changed is our strong belief in, and commitment to, freedom of speech and a free press.

Leveson’s proposals are not a threat to the press. They strengthen, not weaken, our press.

For the press can only be strong if it is clean.

How can the press hold to account those who abuse power if they are abusing their own?

How can they have the legitimacy and moral authority, necessary for the press in a free democracy, if they are breaking their own rules and breaking the law?

Leveson’s proposals

Lord Justice Leveson proposes a framework which provides for the continuation of self-regulation by the press, but - and this is the key difference - with a legal guarantee that that self-regulation will be effective, independent and continue to meet high standards.

The role of the law - the legal underpinning – would be limited to setting up a body whose task would be to recognise the self-regulatory system and to check it once every 3 years.

Leveson said this was essential to ensure that, despite all the protestations of change and good intentions, the press did not once again slip back into their old ways - as they have always done after all the other inquiries and reports.

Labour’s support

We strongly support that.

It cannot be just the good faith of the press that ensures the new system remains independent and effective. There was good faith after previous Royal Commissions and after the Calcutt Reports, but they have always slipped back.

The new system must be guaranteed by law.

Arguments in favour of statute

The press have strongly opposed the key recommendation that recognition should be underpinned by law - that statute should set up the recognition body. They say it would cross the Rubicon and pose a fundamental threat to our democracy.

Let me address each of their arguments in turn.

The first is that any statute affecting the press automatically ends a free press. But there are already statutes affecting the press.

The press themselves asked to be included in section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

The press themselves asked for a Defamation Act.

The first argument—that any law mentioning the press undermines freedom—therefore does not and cannot hold.

Secondly, the press argues that the statute Leveson proposes would be the regulation of the press by a ministerially appointed quango. But this is not what Leveson recommends. It does not set up the self-regulatory system. It would be limited to guaranteeing the system of self-regulation. No newspaper would be required by law to join. It would remain voluntary to join, on the basis of incentives.

In that, what it proposes is similar to the Irish system, which has been in place since 2009. That covers all the newspapers operating in Ireland, which volunteer to be part of the Irish Press Council, which includes the Irish editions of the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Star, The Sun, The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror.

Why have those newspapers signed up to the Irish system? Why, if as they say, any press law would end freedom of speech, have British editors not chained themselves to the house of the Taoiseach? Why, if they are so worried that any press law crosses the Rubicon, has our Government not summoned the Irish ambassador for a dressing down?

If the Irish system really posed a threat to the freedom of the press, where were the protests in Ireland, a country known for its passionate commitment to human rights?

Thirdly, there is the argument about a press law being the thin end of the wedge, the start of a slippery slope, the beginning of our descent into Zimbabwe.

A central feature of our democracy is that it is the responsibility of elected representatives to make and change laws, and we can do that at any time.

If that is a slippery slope, so is the very existence of Parliament. The only way to address that concern is to abolish Parliament, and we have yet to hear anyone proposing that.

Fourthly, there is the argument that the legislation proposed would inevitably be complicated and cumbersome. But that is simply not the case. We have drafted and published a short bill. Hacked Off have published a short bill. The Government has drawn up two draft bills.

All of these show that a Bill can be drafted in a way to give effect to what Lord Justice Leveson recommended.

Finally, there is the civil liberties argument. I do not believe that Lord Justice Leveson’s central recommendations, for an independent system of press self-regulation guaranteed by law, would undermine freedom of speech.

This is not about politicians determining what journalists do or do not write. The freedom of the press is essential.

But so is that other freedom: the freedom of a private citizen to go about their business without harassment, intrusion or the gross invasion of their grief and trauma. Those two freedoms are not incompatible.

Royal Charter


Since the publication of the Leveson Report, we have been engaged in cross party talks with the Tories and the Lib Dems.

And into those talks Oliver Letwin has brought the proposal that the legal underpinning of the recognition body should be provided not by a single statute, as suggested by Leveson and as agreed by us, but through a combination of a Royal Charter and accompanying statutory provisions.

The most straightforward way of implementing Leveson is to have a single statute.

While the statutory route is straightforward the Royal Charter route is anything but. It is untried and untested and we are unpersuaded that it can do the job that Leveson proposes.

Government has never before sought to legislate through a combination of statute and Royal Charter rather than through a bill in Parliament.

It is as yet unclear how the body established by Charter could be funded.

It would clearly need statute to stop ministers on some future occasion toughening or weakening its provisions by edict of the Privy Council.

There would need to be statute to provide for the exemplary damages regime which would incentivise newspapers to join the self-regulator.

Perhaps the most fundamental concern is whether the recognition body established by Royal Charter would survive the inevitable legal challenge.

As we entered the cross party talks we set the government a deadline of the end of January to publish Leveson-compliant measures.

While the Government has shared their Royal Charter and accompanying clauses with us in the talks, and with the newspaper industry, most MPs, peers, lawyers and others with an interest have yet to see them.

It is now time for the Government to have the courage of its convictions. We have - and have drafted and published our bill.

I now challenge the Government to publish their Royal Charter and accompanying draft clauses by the end of this month, and let them be subjected to public scrutiny.

And while the talks have been useful and will continue, the elephant in the room - statute alone or statute and charter - must be discussed openly and agreed on by parliament.

The public must be able to scrutinise the proposals.

And Parliament – to whom Lord Justice Leveson trusted a key role in setting up the new system – must be able to decide.

That’s why we will ensure that this will come back to Parliament - with, if necessary, a debate and vote at on one of our Opposition Days in February.

Ownership

We all know that it wasn’t just the impunity from the lack of a proper press complaints system that led to phone-hacking and media intrusion.

It was a sense of invincibility arising from the power of the concentration of media ownership.

Monopoly ownership inhibits a diversity of views, and competition. It is bad for our democracy and bad for the consumer.

Above all, it places too much power in the hands of one man.

Rupert Murdoch owns too many newspapers. 34 per cent of national circulation – two of our biggest daily papers, and two of our biggest Sunday papers – is too much.

Despite the financial pressures facing newspapers and people now getting their news online, newspapers are still powerful, still wield significant political influence, and still set the news agenda.

The failed News Corp bid for the whole of BSkyB focused attention on cross-media monopoly. But owning too much within one sector – owning too many newspapers, for example – is also a problem.

The Leveson Report made recommendations on media ownership and plurality. And it is a key issue which we must address.

Work needs to be done. Much important work has already been done. We propose that the Government returns to previous work and builds on it.

A notable example of that is the Joint Committee of Both Houses, chaired by Lord Puttnam, which scrutinised the Communications Bill in 2002. That report made a number of recommendations about the role of Ofcom, about ensuring plurality was a consideration in mergers, and about the level of ownership that should be permitted.

Their expertise must be put to work on the Leveson recommendations on ownership.

BBC

The future of the BBC remains of critical importance.

It is impossible to overstate its importance to us at home, and abroad.

It is an essential part of our national life and our media landscape.

It is a source of national pride, and one of our most trusted and valued institutions, with its unparalleled breadth, depth, reach, and appeal, from Saturday night entertainment to sport, from world-class drama to top-drawer comedy, and of course its news.

We all think we raise our own children, but it’s in partnership with Auntie.

And that’s why the sexual crimes committed by Jimmy Savile were so shocking.

It was so horrifying above all because of what Savile's victims had suffered and what they still suffer.

But also it was so shocking because the public trusts and values the BBC so much.

No doubt the enemies of the BBC will take this as an opportunity to pounce. Question its funding. Challenge its independence.

We must protect the BBC. This is a time for cool heads and for the BBC to take the steps to restore confidence.

Tony Hall was an excellent choice as the new Director-General, bringing experience from working within the BBC but also from outside it.

He is the right person to bring stability to the BBC, and I hope that he will lead the change mapped out by George Entwistle in his short stint as Director-General, about there being too many executives. Too many at the top and at the expense of a focus on content and output.

I also hope he will address the executive pay situation at the BBC.

Working for the BBC is prestigious, professionally satisfying and it is public service.

When you work for the BBC – paid for by the licence fee payer – you are making a choice not to work in the private sector and to get the huge benefits of working at the BBC.

Tony Hall will have to address the high pay for executives, and especially how much they are paid compared to front line producers.

As the Public Accounts Committee has shown, there must be transparency about BBC pay and pay offs. And if the public object – which they do – then the current system is simply not sustainable.

Communications Bill

Finally, the Communications Bill. Or rather, the lack of the Communications Bill.

We haven't had a Bill - or even a White Paper - or even a Green Paper - since we met last year.

Just a series of roundtables.

This leaves individuals and our creative industries in a state of uncertainty.

And it is bad news for swathes of our country - particularly rural areas - who still don’t have access to decent speed broadband.

Labour made a pledge - which all judged to be reasonable and achievable - that everyone would have access to 2 megabits per second broadband by the end of 2012.

The Government abandoned that target and instead promised to deliver superfast broadband to 90 per cent of premises by the end of 2015.

But having abandoned our target, the Government looks set to fail to achieve their own.

Too many people across the country are losing out, particularly rural communities.

2.6 million households, 10 per cent of UK broadband connections, still don’t receive basic 2 Megabits per second broadband.

Had Labour been in power almost all of those 2.6 million households would have had access to basic broadband.

Rural areas are almost 50 per cent less likely to receive broadband of at least 2 Megabits per second.

In Ceredigion in Wales, a quarter of premises have no fixed line broadband.

In Teesdale, some farmers have to make a fifty minute round trip to an internet centre to file their online cattle returns.

Conclusion


The Culture, Media and Sport brief is a wide-ranging one.

But we need to keep in mind the common themes.

The need to support innovation and nurture creativity.

The need to make sure that opportunities are available to everyone.

The need to protect people from abuse of power and to hold vested interests to account.

The need to build One Nation, where everyone has a stake, whether that’s giving everyone the opportunity to work in the creative industries or making sure everyone has broadband.

Where prosperity is shared fairly, and the powerful – like Murdoch – are held to account.

Where we protect the institutions – like the BBC – that bind us together as One Nation.