'Looking back I think there is a tendency these days to think of the sixties as the golden age of newspapers. But as that splendid figure in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop was apt to say to his proprietor – "Up to a point Lord Copper".
The truth is that the newspapers of today are better informed, better written, infinitely better laid out, and altogether better value for the reader than they have ever been. They not only hold officialdom to account they also campaign much more vigorously than ever before on issues which are of undoubted public concern but can get swept under the carpet.
Just to take a random set of examples from recent newspaper campaigning:
- The exposure of the pricing policy of one or two pharmaceutical companies;
- The campaign to bring the killer of Stephen Lawrence to justice;
- The campaign to tackle poverty and exclusion here in London;
- And, yes, the exposure of the scandal of MPs’ expenses which has radically altered behaviour at Westminster.
And I am not just speaking of the national press but also of the regional press which has a notable independence. Of course that is not always appreciated by all ministers and politicians.
When I was the chairman in Birmingham and Leeds I was periodically attacked on the basis that I was personally responsible for stories that had obviously offended. My reply to that was – take it up with the editor; he is in charge of editorial policy not the chairman. And that remains the general rule today. It is the editors who know their areas, know their readers and incidentally have to live with the stories once they are published.
Of course the irony and challenge today is the financial pressure on the whole industry. I have no instant solution to those problems except to say as someone who has been outside the industry for over the last decade – that it would be the direst tragedy if the press in this country were to diminish. Who else would hold government, local government, business and the rest to account? In an era of fake news it is all the more important that we should have a free press which pursues the issues; which is irreverent; and is not faced down by the public relations men and the like.
Nor do I think if we ever had a nation without newspapers that you could rely on other organisations to fill the gap. The BBC for example has secure finance and often uses it well. We can all think of brave BBC news reporters covering the conflicts in the Middle East or to my mind (not everyone agrees) the political news reporters telling us what is happening at Westminster.
Against that you suddenly see for yourself from the inside a programme that cuts out the normal checks of journalism. You may remember a few weeks ago they came to the Lords. I will not labour the point but I don’t think that these programmes were the most distinguished piece of public service broadcasting to come out of the Corporation.
Perhaps allow me to make this last point about the Lords.
We are accused of being too large, or having too many members. But the point that is not recognised is that I and my colleagues agree totally with that.
As Speaker I have set up a committee under Terry Burns – the former chairman of Channel 4 – with the sole intent of reducing the numbers in the Lords to more manageable proportions.
The election is obviously going to get slightly in the way, but I have every hope that the report will be ready before the summer recess. Perhaps I can emphasise that although it is my committee, it had the support when debated in the Lords of virtually everyone who spoke in a packed debate.
It is not a question of the Government forcing change upon us – it is the Lords itself taking action on reform by its own decision.
I have been in the Lords for sixteen years. My experience is that the vast majority of peers are driven by a belief in public service.
Members work hard and do important work – over 3,600 amendments to legislation were considered in the last session and over 1,200 were agreed by the Commons. 710 members spoke in debates, 779 voted in divisions and 321 were members of Select Committees.
And we often have effect – as with Lord Dubs’ campaign on child refugees which we were debating this morning.
So I hope you will judge us by the majority of peers who wish to make a contribution to the public good rather than by a small minority who take little part in the affairs of the House.'