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Last Updated: Monday, 16 June, 2003, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
MPs call for media privacy law
Sara Cox
Radio 1 DJ Sara Cox recently won damages for photos of her topless
The UK should have a privacy law as part of new safeguards against media intrusion, says a powerful committee of MPs.

The controversial call from the Commons culture, media and sport committee will provoke protests from newspapers and the government says it is "not on the cards".

In a report published on Monday, the cross-party committee says self-regulation of the press should continue, but there should be "modest compensation" payments.

Other new safeguards proposed include an appeals process against the PCC's decisions and a new ban on paying police and private detectives for private information.

The MPs also want broadcasters and newspapers to work together to end the "media scrum that still seems to gather at the scent of a story".

They also want the PCC to be more proactive by setting up a new team to handle issues which can be resolved before they are published.

Legal moves

The PCC argues a privacy law is unworkable because ordinary people, rather than celebrities, cannot afford to take court action.

The committee says such practical arguments are "quite seductive" but argues that recent cases show judges would bring in a privacy law on a case-by-case basis if Parliament did not act, it says.

Labour MP Gerald Kaufman
Labour's Gerald Kaufman chaired the culture committee
Labour MP Chris Bryant, who is on the committee, told a news conference: "It should not be the judges who are writing a privacy law for us, it should be for politicians."

The law would "clarify the protection that individuals can expect from unwarranted intrusion by anyone - not the press alone - into their private lives", say the MPs.

"This is necessary fully to satisfy the obligations upon the UK under the European Convention of Human Rights."

Committee chairman Gerald Kaufman suggested there would be a defence of publishing something in the "public interest".

Government response

The culture department said Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell had already said there were no plans for a privacy law.

On Monday, Ms Jowell said: "The government continues to believe that a free press is vital in a democracy and that self-regulation is the best regulatory system."

But she had discussed ways to improve the system with PCC Chairman Sir Christopher Meyer.

It should not be the judges who are writing a privacy law for us, it should be for politicians
Chris Bryant

Sir Christopher welcomed the report but stressed that the PCC, as an independent body, did not have to accept the proposals.

He told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "It is extremely difficult to come up with a privacy law that in the end will deliver a better outcome for all the thousands of people who come to the PCC for redress."

The committee says overall standards of press behaviour, as well as the PCC's performance, has improved over the last decade.

But they question whether "progress from the very low baseline standards conceded by editors themselves, has gone far enough".

The PCC's argument that self-regulation is needed to maintain the freedom of the press is "persuasive", say the MPs.

Compensation

The MPs say there should be an independent figure to handle appeals and regularly examine the PCC's way of working.

And there should be a scale of compensation awards for serious cases, paid either to complainants to a nominated charity - but they refuse to say how much they should be.

Among other changes proposed are:

  • The PCC should establish a system to respond to people who complain and want a judgement on their case and not mediation with newspapers
  • The PCC code's ban on intercepting phone calls should be extended to e-mails
  • Journalists should be able to refuse assignments which breach the code
  • Editors whose newspapers continually break the code should have to stand down from the PCC boards
  • Any newspaper forced to publish a PCC judgement against it should have to advertise it on the front page

Publicist Max Clifford said a privacy law would make it "more difficult to show up people who deserve to be shown up" while giving ordinary people no more protection.

Ahead of the report, the PCC chairman compared trying to convince some of the committee like "trying to convince the Flat Earth Society that the world is round".




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Duncan Kennedy
"The commitee says the Press Complaints Commission should be beefed up"



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