Bill makes press bugs legal

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The Home Office minister Baroness Blatch has confirmed that the Government's Police Bill will legitimise the bugging of newspaper offices.

Unless amended in the House of Commons, the Bill's powers could be used to spy on newspapers investigating a case like Spycatcher, the autobiography of the former MI5 agent Peter Wright which the Government tried to prevent newspapers from publishing.

Lord Lester, a Liberal Democrat civil rights specialist, says that when journalists' contacts fear that their conversations may be bugged, the Bill may have "a chilling effect on free speech".

The Bill gives chief constables the power to bug offices when "serious crime" is suspected. After the debate on the Bill in the Lords, Lord Lester wrote to Baroness Blatch asking if the definition serious crime "was wide enough to cover the case of a newspaper suspected of committing breaches of the Official Secrets Act or the Contempt of Court Act with a whistleblower or public interest defence"

Lady Blatch denied the Bill was drafted with any particular offence in mind, but that its wording would cover Official Secrets and Contempt - crimes of a political character, according to Lord Lester. He proposes that three of the "Gang of Four" - Lords Rogers, Jenkins and Baroness Williams - should attack the Government before the Bill is debated in the Commons.

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