Cabinet to consider a law of privacy

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An extension of the civil law to give individuals a right of personal privacy will be considered today by the Cabinet before the publication of the widely leaked report on press regulation by Sir David Calcutt QC.

No decisions will be announced today, but the Cabinet is expected to endorse overwhelmingly the need for laws to curb electronic bugging and long-range photography, while rejecting Sir David's plan to regulate the press with a statutory code of practice enforced by a tribunal able to fine.

The Prime Minister's office emphasised yesterday that a civil right of privacy was a strong option. Any remedy would be 'weighted towards ordinary individuals,' it said, highlighting the political need to present that measure as applying across the board, not only to public figures.

The debate over extending the law stems from the belief among some ministers that outlawing modern technological means of obtaining and misusing personal information would not, alone, prevent invasions of personal privacy.

Such a measure would, however, raise the need for a public interest defence to protect legitimate journalistic investigation, and provoke the claim that, as with the law of libel, it would be available only to the rich. Legal aid is unlikely.

Today's agenda was agreed after a two-hour meeting between John Major and senior ministers yesterday, when it was decided publication of Sir David's report - perhaps with a Commons statement from Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage - should be brought forward because 'partial leakages' had distorted the debate.

The 'royal' disclosures of the past 48 hours have almost certainly played their part. However, Downing Street dismissed claims that the security services were involved in the taping and leaking of an intimate mobile telephone conversation said to be between the Prince of Wales and his friend Camilla Parker Bowles. A transcript has appeared in Australian, German and Austrian publications.

Allegations of MI5 involvement were 'nonsensical', a source said. It was 'amazing' the suggestion had been raised.

MI5 was accused of bugging members of the Royal Family as telecommunications experts dismissed reports that royal telephone tapes were chance recordings by radio hams.

Lord Rees-Mogg, Broadcasting Standards Council chairman, said the tapes may have been made 'innocently' during an MI5 protection operation.

Cellnet, majority-owned by British Telecom, said it would have been 'exceptionally difficult, if not impossible' for the calls to have been picked up accidentally. One of its spokesmen was among experts who told the Independent evidence pointed to bugging.