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Last Updated: Monday, 16 June, 2003, 22:01 GMT 23:01 UK
MPs debate privacy law

By Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent

At the press conference to launch their report on privacy and media intrusion, MPs on the Commons culture committee were discussing what sanctions might be applied to newspapers which fell foul of their voluntary regulator, the Press Complaints Commission.

Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones
The celebrity couple claimed their privacy had been breached
"What sanctions can we impose?" asked Derek Wyatt, the Labour member for Sittingbourne. "Stop them publishing for a day?"

It sounded like a rhetorical question.

Rhetorical or not it was a question that clearly appalled a Tory member of the committee, Michael Fabricant, who quickly made clear he would oppose anything that would prevent a newspaper publishing.

After all, that doesn't sound good coming from MPs who say they respect the freedom of the press.

Wyatt, too, said he wasn't sure it was a good idea when pressed by the men from the Sun and News of the World.

But by then the damage was done.

The tabloids were confirmed in their view MPs in general, and these MPs in particular, have it in for them.

You can see the committee's report, with its call for a privacy law and its suggestions for beefing up the Press Complaints Commission, as just the latest episode in a long-running tit-for-tat war between our elected representatives and the popular press.

In fact the MPs were positively emollient.

The committee's chairman, Gerald Kaufman, says he thinks the press has become less intrusive in the decade since the committee last looked into privacy.

Those who had confidently predicted harsh criticisms of the PCC, and thought MPs would recommend its replacement by an ombudsman, or the regulation of newspapers by the new communications regulator Ofcom, were disappointed.

Front page apologies

But the MPs did come up with a shopping list of improvements to the way the Commission operated - with the support of editors like the Independent's Simon Kelner, who think the PCC needs beefing up.

Some of the proposals the Commission will have no difficulty accepting because its new chairman, the smooth ex-diplomat Sir Christopher Meyer, has already suggested them.

These include an extra "lay" member on the commission, for instance, to ensure newspaper outsiders comprehensively outnumber editors or an independent audit once a year of the Commission's effectiveness.

But others will run into resistance.

Piers Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror, says when his paper is obliged to run an adjudication by the Commission he is only prepared to run a front-page "taster", as proposed by the committee, if MPs agree to appear on his front page every time they transgress:

"It won't happen," he says.

He also says if MPs want to close down erring newspapers for a day they should also agree to close down Parliament every time one of them does something wrong.

Compensation pay-outs

And Sir Christopher Meyer is against forcing newspapers to pay people who successfully complain even the "modest" compensation proposed by the MPs.

He thinks introducing money into the PCC process would not increase the Commission's deterrent effect on journalists and editors.

But it might slow things down and encourage lawyers to get involved - not a good idea for a process Sir Christopher says is meant to be "free, fast and fair" and so accessible to ordinary folk as well as celebrities.

The MPs' most far-reaching proposal had nothing to do with the PCC - but seems equally likely to gather dust.

Not unreasonably, the committee says Parliament ought to pass a new privacy law because if it doesn't the judges will create one, case by case.

It is not a new idea. Mr Justice Lindsay, the judge in the case brought by Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones against Hello magazine, made the same point.

The Human Rights Act establishes a right to privacy for the first time in English law; a series of cases (mainly involving celebrities) has extended the existing law of confidence into something close to a privacy law; but the present legal situation is a muddle of uncertainties and inconsistencies.

Gerald Kaufman and another of the MPs on the committee, Chris Bryant, say it is the judges' job to interpret laws made by Parliament - and a privacy law should be thoroughly debated by MPs.

But the government moved instantly to reject the idea, preferring a strengthened PCC instead, and editors are almost universally opposed to a law they fear would hamper legitimate investigation and represent yet another curb on press freedom.

Like front-page apologies in the tabloids, a privacy law will not happen - at least, not yet.

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