Harriet Harman – 2012 Speech to TUC Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Harriet Harman, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, to the TUC Conference on 17th March 2012.

Good morning. And I’m very happy to be here this morning, with so many of you who have long worked in the press and broadcasting, campaigned for press freedom, against media monopoly and for higher press standards. Particularly the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, the National Union of Journalists and here at the TUC.

This is an important moment and an opportunity for long overdue change. And your insight into what needs to change and your pressure for that change is vital.

You have the concerns of those who care about the public interest and you have the knowledge that comes with working in the media.

The profession of journalism is very much in the dock because o f phone hacking and the evidence that has come before the Leveson Inquiry. But it is important that we all remember that good journalism is vital for our democracy and despite the drama round phone hacking most journalists are highly professional doing vital work and often in dangerous conditions to get to the truth. The death of Marie Colvin reminded everyone that without fearless journalists the truth of suffering and oppression will remain hidden from view.

I believe that most journalists – like most politicians – go into the profession to do good and serve the public interest.

So, although journalism feels under attack at present we must not lose sight of the huge professional commitment in journalism and the amazing work that is done.

But I know that you also have concerns about employment and trade unionism in the media.

Journalists have always worked under pressure – the pressure of deadlines, the pressure of being the first to the story – or the sc oop… But now, that pressure is exacerbated by people not buying newspapers and instead, getting their news online which creates a very difficult commercial climate.

Employment in the media – particularly in newspapers – has become much harder over the last few years. Jobs have been lost. In just one week this year, 75 jobs went at Trinity Mirror’s national papers, and 30 jobs went at the Telegraph.

The competition for market share in a shrinking market has created pressure on journalistic professional standards – some feel under pressure to cut corners to get a story. And the right to challenge that is undermined by job insecurity. There is a fear that, if you object, then you will be the first out the door and into a world where it’s hard to get another job.

But the fact that newspapers are under pressure does not justify any undermining of employment rights.

And I want to pay tribute to Michelle Stanistreet and the NUJ for standing up for journalists.

And the truth is that if journalists, with the backing of the NUJ, had more power to protect their professional integrity, some of the worst problems that have now come to light may have been avoided.

So trade unionism is good for the individual in the media and is good for press standards.

We support a free press as a basic human right. And there’s another human right which we support which is freedom of association – trade unionism. And though it does not seem to have been documented, we all have the sense that when it comes to news reporting of trade unions, the press is not fair. Depiction of trade unions in the press rarely highlights the life changing work of local representatives – protecting their members from discrimination and unfairness. When did you last see reports of trade unions working patiently on behalf of their members with the management to secure a sustainable future for the business? Instead, the depiction is of extremism and perversity.

Women’s groups have made a submission about stereotyped treatment of women by the press.

It’s not right for some sections of the press to abuse their right to free speech in a way that undermines another fundamental right – freedom of association.

I think it would enhance Lord Justice Leveson’s work if evidence on that was presented to him.

This conference has been called at an historic time – with the media under scrutiny like never before.

The central issue is that we all want a free press which is able to report without fear or favour, but we have all been revolted at the unfairness and corruption revealed by Leveson. And we all want change. Business as usual is not an option.

I’ve thought long and hard about how we ended up in this position and I think there are two deep-rooted problems which led us into this mess and which we must confront: the concentration of media power and the lack of redress for press complaints.

Because of the evidence at the Leveson inquiry – and the harrowing testimony of the victims such as the Dowlers – most of the discussion about change has focused on press complaints.

But the wrongdoing in the Murdoch empire was due not only to the absence of any proper complaints system which led to a sense of impunity. But also from too great a concentration of power which led to a sense of invincibility. And it is this combination of impunity and invincibility which lies at the heart of the problem and must be addressed

Let me start with that concentration of media ownership.

The malpractice and illegality exposed by the Leveson inquiry was never just “one rogue reporter” or a few bent policemen. It is a symptom of an underlying structural problem.

Murdoch owns too many newspapers. 37% of national circulation – owning two of our most influential dailies and two of our most influential Sunday papers, was too much. And had it not been for the hacking scandal and Murdoch dropping his bid, the Government would have waived through his bid for the whole of BSkyB. As well as the DCMS select committee, both Ofcom and Leveson are looking at ownership, and it is clear that there needs to be change.

We must make sure that opportunity is not wasted.

There needs to be agreement on:

– a trigger for intervention – action cannot be confined just to an event such as a takeover

– the maximum percentage of ownership permitted

– a methodology for how ownership is measured

– the mechanisms for enforcing – for example, divesting

– and a strong Ofcom, which must be powerful in practice as well as on paper.

And the issue is not just ownership across newspapers, broadcasting and other media but also how we address monopolistic ownership within those sectors.

Of course substantive change will need to be informed by the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry and the Ofcom review. But there are thing s the government can and should do now to strengthen the law which was clearly revealed as inadequate by the Murdoch/BskyB bid.

Over the course of that bid, it became clear that it was not only political unwillingness of the government to act, but legal inhibitions on action too.

We are proposing that the law be changed so that in cross media cases like this…

– The person making the application must prove to Ofcom that they are a “fit and proper person” at the start of the process – before the applicant notifies the European Commission that they intend to buy another company.

– That the “fit and proper person” test should be broadened to include not just criminal convictions but also any previous history of impropriety, failure in good governance, or investigation or prosecution for tax fraud.

– If it’s discovered that they not have been open and transparent in the information they have given in proving they are “fit and proper” the applicat ion should be struck out.

– That an applicant would have to accept the jurisdiction of the UK court. That if your bid is successful, and your company is involved in a court case, you can’t avoid a court summons by being abroad.

The BskyB bid stress tested the existing legal framework and showed clearly were the cracks.

Despite widespread and serious concern about Murdoch’s business practices, Ofcom did not initiate the “fit and proper person” test until after the Miller Dowler hacking revelations.

Under the changes we propose Murdoch would have to have full disclosure and had to prove himself a fit and proper person before he was even able to formally start the process of the takeover.

We don’t have to wait to do this. My colleague in the Lords, Baroness Scotland, has been telling the government since last July that they can change the law under the powers that they have in the Enterprise Act. And they should do this.

The situation is different for local newspapers. And the biggest danger at local level is not having a newspaper at all.

Revenue is declining as fewer people are buying local newspapers and classified advertising is moving online. Local newspapers are closing or moving to regional hubs, with the loss of local news reporting and the loss of journalists’ jobs. Claire Enders estimates that 40% of jobs in the regional press have been lost in the last 5 years.

Local newspapers are important to local communities.

They also provide a route for journalists, especially those outside London, into the national media.

So we should take the particular situation in local newspapers into account when framing protection against monopoly in the future.

As well as preventing monopoly and promoting plurality, we need to give members of the public redress where journalistic professional standards are breached.

The financial pressures which have intensified competition between papers and left some feeling that they are fighting for their lives cannot justify intrusion and illegality, the terrible stories that we’ve all heard at the Leveson Inquiry.

Lord Justice Leveson has presided over a fearless and forensic process, and an emotional one. It has been a decisive moment for free speech – the free speech of the victims often heard for the first time. Even before Leveson has finished hearing the evidence and started writing his report, the Inquiry is emphatically demonstrating the need for change.

Look at what happened to Charlotte Church, a child with a huge talent. But for the News of the World the most important thing was to sell stories. No information – not the most intimate, not the most private and not the most painful personal and family issues – was off limits. In their pursuit of profits they dehumanised Charlotte Church and her mother. To the News of the World they were not a child and her mother. They were no thing more than commodities to sell more papers. She showed real courage in coming to the Inquiry to say how that felt.

You can only admire, too, the remarkable strength of Bob and Sally Dowler. What could be worse than to lose a beloved daughter to murder? But to the News of the World they were not grieving parents deserving the greatest sympathy. They were nothing more than commodities to sell more papers. For the Dowlers to come to the Leveson inquiry and – in public – relive those grim days and weeks, in the full glare of the press that had so abused them, was hugely courageous.

The need for change is clear. The challenge – for Leveson and for all of us – is that this change commands as great a consensus as possible, and that this change is positive and enduring.

There is much heat and justifiable emotion around the debate about the future of press standards, but there is an important need for the response from politicians and the press to be measur ed.

In my role as Shadow Culture and Media Secretary I want to be clear that Labour’s starting point will be a commitment to defend the freedom of the press.

As a lawyer, at the start of my professional life, I fought the cause of press freedom, working at Liberty. Because of my work holding the government to account, I was prosecuted for contempt by the then Attorney General in what became the landmark case of Home Office v Harman.

As a politician, I’ve spent enough time in opposition to dread the thought of the government interfering in the press. I’ve spent enough time in government to recognise that government power is dangerous if not held to account by the press.

Because the press are now in the dock, it looks like special pleading from a vested interest when they make the case for press freedom. That’s why it’s all the more important that politicians must insist on the freedom of the press. Politics cannot operate in a democracy witho ut a free and fearless press. We don’t want a cowed press.

Instead of doing things the usual way – where government and opposition each come up with their own proposals – we do need to do things differently.

I want to see newspaper editors to get together and come forward with their own proposal. I’ve been calling for this since January and I’m very pleased to see Jeremy Hunt echo that this week.

It would be better for the editors to frame the solution rather than have one imposed on them. We have had extensive general discussions. It’s now time for the editors to propose a new system for press complaints which is not just rhetoric.

This new system should deliver on the principles the editors say they actually want.

– A system independent of political interference and also independent of serving editors, who cannot be allowed to go on marking their own homework

– A system that is citizen centric, accessible and straightforward for all and not available only to the rich.

– A system that applies to – and is able to enforce its rulings – against all newspapers.

Last week, the Press Complaints Commission announced it was to close itself down and move to a transitional authority proposed by PCC chair, Lord Hunt. But the new body and Lord Hunt’s proposals fail a fundamental test.

It will apply not to all papers – but only to those who opt in.

So it is nothing more than business as usual. A change of name but not of substance.

And after all the evidence that has come before the Leveson inquiry, the status quo is not an option.

Many people have asked me whether I’ve been shocked by the revelations at the Leveson Inquiry. The sad truth is, it just confirmed what I had always believed.

Many people have also said to me, “But you were in government for 13 years – why didn’t you do something about it? You were too close weren’t you?”

The answer to that lies i n what happened in the past.

In our 1992 manifesto, we put in what we believed was necessary: that we should ‘establish an urgent inquiry’ by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission into media ownership, and – if the press failed to deal with abuses of individuals’ privacy – to implement the statutory protections recommended by the Calcutt report.

Our commitment to tackling media monopoly and introducing a robust press complaints system meant that the Murdoch press was determined to stop us getting into government. Not a day went by without on every issue, his papers battering us.

As we approached 1997, we – as Tony Blair said in his famous ‘feral beasts’ speech – turned to ‘courting, assuaging and persuading the media… after 18 years of Opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative’.

And, it is fair to say, that when we were in government, many senior figures did become too close to News International and Murdoch.

However, we did some things that Murdoch objected to. We strongly supported the BBC and we established Ofcom. But we didn’t sort out media ownership or complaints.

We’ve all got a lot of baggage on this. But we’ve got to leave it behind. This is not a time for press or politicians to settle old scores.

We must have an open debate. It cannot be a debate where the media dictates what we are allowed to discuss and propose about their future.

New ownership rules must address invincibility – it has to protect against monopoly and promote the public interest.

A new complaints system must address impunity and give redress to individuals.

Neither of these are a threat to a free press, but they ensure it’s a fair press.

The financial crisis facing print journalism cannot be used as an excuse to duck reform.

This is a critical time for the media, and for public policy towards the media. The Leveson Inquiry, the Ofcom review of media ownership and the forthcoming Communications Bill green paper – all of these things could have a profound effect on the shape of our media landscape for years to come.

We cannot waste this opportunity. We need free debate and we need judicious reform.

We owe that to the proud tradition of the British press, we owe that to everybody who works in it and we owe it to the public.