MPs and journalists were put in their place by a feisty panel of four life peers at the annual “cash for questions” evening held to raise funds for the Journalists’ Charity.Sky News presenter Anna Botting, who hosted the event, had a fistful of questions from the guests who crowded into a marquee on the terrace of the House of Commons for one of the most popular events in the charity’s social calendar (20.6.2011).
The advice could not have been clearer from an eminent House of Lords quartet: there should be no further attempts by MPs to breach the confidentiality of super injunctions and unless journalists were more careful about the way they were challenging the law, they could end up finding themselves being restrained by some form of regulation on media privacy.
Baroness Buscombe, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, was in no mood to allow either media proprietors or their staff to escape their responsibilities when she was challenged over the campaign to reveal the identity of footballers and other public figures and the practice of hacking into messages left on mobile phones.
In challenging the behaviour of both MPs and journalists, Lady Buscombe, a former Conservative shadow minister, was ably supported by the Liberal Democrat, Baroness Bonham-Carter, Lord Soley, a former chairman of the Labour Parliamentary Party, and Lord Shipley, a former Liberal Democrat opposition leader on Newcastle City Council.
But the former political editor Julia Langdon, the fifth panellist – and proud she said to be the only one who had “not been ennobled” – stood up for MPs and journalists. She thought it was ludicrous that everyone on Facebook knew which celebrities had taken out super injunctions yet reporters and MPs could not identify them.
Lady Buscombe was adamant that naming such individuals represented an “appalling” breach of parliamentary privilege in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Although there was “a time and a place” for an injunction they should be subjected to a sell-by date.
“Too many people are taking out injunctions and leaving them in place for their personal benefit. There should be a deadline by when they must be reconsidered.”
She was equally strident in warning journalists they should take care not to push their challenge of super injunctions too far in case it resulted in some kind of restraints on journalistic freedom.
“A privacy law would be a death knell of journalism, as would any state regulation. You guys must be free to get on with your job but we need standards maintained and a strict editors’ code which you have to abide by.”
Lord Soley was also in no doubt that parliamentary privilege should not have been used to breach a super injunction. “We have given this job to the judges but I do agree injunctions have been used too often.”
Journalists were in the firing line once again when it came to a question about the legality of hacking into messages left on mobile phones. Lord Soley and Baroness Bonham-Carter said that most Parliamentarians knew the practice of using information obtained by such means had been commonplace among journalists and perhaps some broadcasters.
Julia Langdon agreed that “everyone knew it was taking place” and no-one believed News International’s assertion that only one individual reporter was involved.
Lady Buscombe seized on the question to defend the work of the Press Complaints Commission which she said had been unfairly blamed for not responding.
“These are criminal offences and you can never stop rogue traders 100 per cent. There will always be people in every profession who behave badly.”
The Commission had taken the issue “deeply seriously” and set up a review at the beginning of the year to examine the PCC’s own conduct.
“Remember our role is restricted. We cannot investigate in the same way as the Police.
“We asked questions and clearly people have misled us. I could not have made that statement six months ago because we didn’t have the evidence. News International have now said they got it wrong and we are now asking questions of News International and all newspaper and magazine publishers. I want to know: ‘Did you mislead us’. We want to try to stop this happening again.”
Opinions were divided on the future of the House of Lords. Lord Shipley said he would prefer an eighty per cent elected upper house; Lady Bonham-Carter favoured an elected house. But Lady Buscombe, a life peer for thirteen years, defended the life peerage.
“The single best thing about being appointed is that I can be true to myself and say what I believe. We have the freedom to go out on a limb and reflect the mood of the country.”
Julia Langdon had the final word revealing that she had once heard on the grapevine that she was about to honoured. “I was told I was being put up for a place in the Lords. When I finally picked myself up from the floor after laughing so much I heard my name got no further because it was feared by the powers that be that I would not do as I was told. I think we should have an elected upper chamber.”
Bill Hagerty, chairman of the Journalists’ Charity, welcomed guests to the reception and he thanked Camelot for sponsoring the event. “Without the support of Camelot and other supporters outside the industry we could not continue to give the help we do to journalists in need of assistance.”