The Importance of Press Freedom

Laura White
Laura White

A speech by Conservative mp for north east somerset, Jacob Rees-Mogg during the Data Protection Bill in the house of commons (5 March 2018)

We know the weakness of our local papers and how they struggle hand to mouth, but how easy would it be, for example, for my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), who is no longer in his place, to take to court the journal that he does not like because it said things about him that inaccurate?

It is fair enough for him not to like them, but if an hon. Member took a local paper to court, that local paper would be insolvent, because many of them do not have powerful parents behind them. Many of them—I am thinking of some in my constituency—are run by entrepreneurial individuals trying to make a reasonable living.

The threat of having to pay double costs would be sufficient to stop them printing a disagreeable story about us.

That is great. It means that in all Conservative seats, no disagreeable things will be published about Conservatives; and in all Labour seats, the same will be true.

Therefore I will remain the representative of North East Somerset forever and ever—amen, amen, alleluia—and the hon. Member for Keighley remains in Keighley likewise. As it happens, we both think that is fundamentally wrong and an attack on democracy.

Free speech is not there so that Rupert Murdoch, a man I greatly admire, can make a great deal of money; it is not there so that the noble Lord Rothermere can, likewise, make a decent living; it is there because it is the pillar of democracy.

If we do not have free speech, how will we expose corrupt Governments, incompetent politicians and—I dare say there are some occasionally—Governments who make mistakes?

Councils that get things wrong, errors that are made and dishonesties that are performed, how will they be reported if every one of us can shut down our local newspaper just by saying that we will go to court and the newspaper will have double costs?

The proponents of clauses 168 and 169 will say, “That’s all very well, but there is IMPRESS.”

What is the fundamental principle that has prevented newspapers from signing up to IMPRESS? I was one of 13 MPs who voted against the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which allowed this to happen, and I was absolutely right to do so.

The principle is that a free press is one that cannot be regulated by the state, and an application to be approved by a regulator approved by a royal charter is regulation by the state.

That is not comparable to the judges or other independent organs of the state, because the judges are part of the state—they are simply independent from this place and from the Executive.

The whole point of the press is that it is not in any way part of the state. Quite understandably, no serious newspaper of the left or of the right has been willing to bend the knee to IMPRESS, and nor should it.

Let us now turn to IMPRESS, what causes it, what its origins are and who funds it. It is a scandal of our time that their noble lordships have made an amendment that has been pushed and harried through by perhaps one of the most disreputable figures in British public life.

I refer, of course, to Mr Max Mosley, who has provided £3 million for IMPRESS and who took a libel action against the News of the World when it said he had indulged in Nazi-themed orgies.

The News of the World was wrong: the orgies were not Nazi-themed. They were orgies, but they were German-themed. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for saying those shocking things in front of you, but that is what happened. The News of the World lost, and it was deemed that Mr Mosley’s privacy had been invaded.

Before that, few of us had heard of him, except we knew vaguely of his involvement in Formula 1 and we knew his father had been a Member of Parliament—a Labour Member of Parliament, as it happened—and had then set up the British Union of Fascists.

But we did not know that Mr Max Mosley himself held views—or, he claims, had in the past held views—that no reputable person could possibly hold.

Views that are so repellent that, though I read them out because it is important to understand what underpins IMPRESS, I do so with considerable reluctance. Mr Mosley was the authoriser of a leaflet and, because we have stood for Parliament, we all know the importance of a leaflet’s authoriser.

I have the most wonderful agent, Margaret Brewer from Somerset. She was referred to by The Sunday Times as a “flinty rural matron”, and indeed she is. Nothing goes in my leaflets without her approval. People may think I am independent-minded, but I have not a view that has not been approved by Mrs Brewer. We all know how this works. If our agent does not approve it, it does not go in.

What did this leaflet say? As I say, this is so appalling that I am reluctant to read it out in Parliament. Under a heading of ‘Protect your health’, it said:

“There is no medical check on immigration. Tuberculosis, VD and other terrible diseases like leprosy are on the increase. Coloured immigration threatens your children’s health.”

That is the view of the funder of IMPRESS. It is little wonder that our free press does not want to be associated with such a man. It is little wonder that, to its credit, the Labour party has now refused to take any further funding from this man, but IMPRESS has not.

IMPRESS has not condemned this man. It has not said it will refuse further funding from the charitable trust he set up purely and specifically to keep IMPRESS running. IMPRESS has done nothing of this kind. It has a reputation of its own, and there is a certain irony in this; its chief executive is a man called Jonathan Heawood, and he tweeted, of all things, that the Daily Mail was “a neo-fascist rag”.

Dare I say that he might know a good deal more about neo-fascists than one had thought when that tweet was originally circulated?

We are suggesting, under clauses 168 and 169, that that most precious thing that underpins, protects and gives us our democracy should be sacrificed to the honour of a man who has waged a campaign against freedom of the press because it exposed his perversions. That is the long and short of it.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), the deputy leader of the Labour party and shadow Secretary of State, said that Mr Mosley does not hold those views any more—well, how gracious of him.

But how fortunate we are that our free press has exposed those views, so that we know them in the context of the debate we are having today.

I say to Opposition Members that any of them who go through the Lobby at a later stage to vote in favour of those clauses are voting to support Max Mosley, his abhorrent views and his money.

Those of us who believe in freedom will vote them down.