INTERNET LIES IN GENERAL ELECTIONS – 30 November 1999

Dr Julian Lewis: It is a great pleasure to follow the excellent speech of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Harry Barnes), and especially to acknowledge his kindness and consideration in cutting short his remarks on a subject that is, evidently, very close to his heart in order to give other hon. Members a chance to speak. I shall try to follow his example.

In speaking now – unexpectedly, following a constructive and welcome meeting earlier today with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr O'Brien) – I am appealing to the House for cross-party support to help close a loophole in the Representation of the People Act 1983. That loophole is not yet addressed in the Bill, but I have some reason to hope that, if an amendment is moved in Committee, it may not be met with an entirely unsympathetic response from the Government. It relates to section 106(1) of the 1983 Act, which is concerned with the telling of lies about the character or conduct of candidates in elections by people intending to damage their prospects of being returned to Parliament.

I wish to use as an illustration my own experience, which led to a court case that exposed that loophole in the law in the age of the internet. I have previously, on 18 March 1998, mentioned in the House the problem caused by the publication of a scurrilous magazine called Scallywag, which specialised in telling lies about the private lives of public figures. It first became notorious in 1993, when it falsely alleged that the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Major), was conducting an adulterous affair with his caterer. A couple of years later, it announced that on a certain date Buckingham Palace would be making a formal declaration that a senior member of the royal family was dying from the AIDS virus. Needless to say, that declaration was never made.

Eventually, in late 1994, the magazine turned its attention to me, and the nub of its accusations was that I was a secret promiscuous homosexual who frequented "male dens of iniquity" and that my girlfriend was really a tart, hired from an escort agency to accompany me to constituency selection contests.

Recent events show the lethality of such accusations. Because the author and publishers were destitute, I could not sue them without running up irrecoverable costs. However, I managed to uncover the secret network of printers and distributors, and I sued them instead. I gained £39,500 in damages and about £70,000 in costs. The accusations were then transferred to the internet, but, foolishly, to a British-based internet company, Demon, whereupon I sued it and gained several thousand pounds in damages and costs from it as well. However, I still could not go after the actual perpetrator because he was financially destitute. If I had, I would have run up irrecoverable costs, which I would have had to meet when he declared himself bankrupt once again, having been a bankrupt as recently as 1991.

The Representation of the People Act 1983 is relevant, because section 106 makes it a criminal offence to tell lies about the character or conduct of a candidate with a view to affecting his return to Parliament. I was able to confront the editor of the internet site at a public meeting and to get him to admit that he was making these statements about my character and conduct to damage my vote, and I then reported him to the police under the terms of section 106.

That led to a trial in December 1998 in a magistrates court. After three days of cross-examination of myself, and a series of smears and lies put forward on behalf of the person on trial by Mr Paul Bogan, his barrister, Mr Bogan admitted on the last day of the trial:

"I accept that there is no evidence of a direct nature that Dr Lewis was homosexual."

In fact, Mr Bogan produced no shred of evidence of any sort, nor was a single witness produced.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I would be grateful if the hon. Member could help me by demonstrating how his remarks are related to the Bill before us.

Dr Lewis: I am obliged, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was encouraged by the meeting that I had with the Minister this morning and I was told that it would be germane to talk about this case with a view to tabling an amendment in Committee to close the loophole that I am about to explain. I have almost finished my remarks on the illustration, and, if you bear with me a few moments longer, you will see that it is entirely germane.

In the December trial, this gentleman was convicted on seven criminal counts. However, on appeal in the Crown court in June this year, those convictions were quashed. They were quashed because the material had been uploaded onto the internet before the opening of the election campaign, and thus while I was a prospective parliamentary candidate, not an adopted parliamentary candidate. The Press Association law reporter quoted the judgment as follows:

"the judge said: 'Failure of the defendant to act to shut down the internet site cannot be properly described as publication in the context of this Act.'

He went on – here is the direct relevance of the case, Mr Deputy Speaker –

"'We are aware that our decision means that there is a situation which is unsatisfactory if Section 106 (of the Act) is to continue to be effective legislation.

"We are not entitled to remedy any defect the wording of the section may have in light of more modern conditions.'"

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point in the context of this Bill and much other legislation. Will he explain why, given the logic that he is pursuing, he thought it appropriate to vote last night against the Electronic Communications Bill, which contains provisions that will help to address some of the points that he has raised?

Dr Lewis: I was not aware that that Bill contained such provisions – I wish to be entirely honest with the hon. Gentleman. Had I been aware of them, I would have reconsidered the matter.

Mr Fabricant: My hon. Friend's memory, which is normally very good, has failed on this occasion. He did not vote against the Bill; he abstained.

Dr Lewis: Much as I appreciate my hon. Friend's attempt to assist me, I am aware of the passage of time and the importance of letting other Members speak, and we are moving into arcane considerations in which I have no wish to indulge.

The judgment made it clear that section 106 of the 1983 Act is deficient. As a result of the creation of the internet, people can upload lies about a candidate in an election, but, provided that they do so prior to the start of the election campaign, failure to shut down the website in question is not enough to establish that publication occurred during the election campaign itself, and thus to establish guilt under section 106.

I understand from the Minister that he has experienced something slightly similar to my case, although the allegations against him were of a different nature. Our cases show that section 106 of the 1983 Act is now worthless in respect of protecting candidates for election against deliberate lies told about their personal lives and character with the intention of damaging their chances of returning to Parliament.

I therefore hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in seeking to support an amendment that I propose to table in Committee to restore to candidates the protection against lying filth and the disgraceful attempts to pervert the political process which section 106 was originally intended to prevent. Now that we are in the age of the internet, I am sure that such protection will be of value to all candidates of all parties in all future parliamentary elections.