Editors attack 'censorship' proposals: Calcutt report recommending statutory curbs on the press backed by substantial fines wins wide support from MPs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NEWSPAPER editors yesterday warned of censorship if the Government goes ahead with recommendations to place statutory curbs - backed up by substantial fines - on the press.

Sir David Calcutt is reported to have recommended a press complaints tribunal, chaired by a judge with two government-appointed lay assessors and operating a statutory code, after what he judges as the failure of the voluntary Press Complaints Commission to put newspapers' own house in order.

The tribunal would have the power to dictate the wording and placement of corrections and apologies, and Sir David is understood to have repeated the recommendations from his 1990 report outlawing physical trespass, electronic eavesdropping and use of telephoto lenses to take photographs on private property, subject only to public interest defences such as the exposure of crime.

Last July, 18 months after that report, Sir David was asked to prepare this progress report.

MPs yesterday voiced support for legislation on telephone bugging - which has taken on new force with the publication of calls allegedly made by the Princess of Wales and David Mellor - but there are deep divisions between MPs and ministers over whether statutory curbs are needed or are politically wise.

Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, who received the report on Friday has expressed reservations and, while Sir David's report is expected to be published this month, ministers may postpone a decision until the media intrusion inquiry by the Commons heritage select committee is completed, probably late next month.

Gerald Kaufman, its Labour chairman, said yesterday that the committee planned to take evidence from Sir David after the report was published.

The Newspaper Publishers Association called an emergency meeting for today to campaign against statutory curbs as Lord McGregor of Durris, the Press Complaints Commission chairman, dubbed the tribunal 'a disaster for democracy'. Such legislation could only be to protect the Government, MPs and 'great personages' from scrutiny by a free and independent press, he said.

The Association of British Editors and Guild of British Newspaper Editors said it would lead to censorship.

Sir Ivan Lawrence, chairman of the cross-party home affairs select committee, spoke for a swathe of Conservative MPs when he backed legislation. Picking up Mr Mellor's phrase when the first Calcutt report was published that the press was 'drinking in the last chance saloon,' he said that chance had gone.

Mr Mellor suggested yesterday it would be better to stick to issues such as electronic eavesdropping, about which there could be no argument. Sir Norman Fowler, Conservative Party Chairman, reflected ministerial fears that statutory controls would be seen as a government attempt to censor. He said: 'I would wish to be sure that the basic freedom of the press remains unlimited in the sense that it can expose scandals and issues of public confidence.'

Ann Clwyd, Labour's heritage spokesman, said a statutory right of reply, backed by fines was 'a necessary move'.

Clive Soley, the Labour front-bencher whose Bill enforcing a legal duty to correct inaccuracies faces its second reading on 29 January, said the idea of a government-appointed tribunal with power to fine was worrying. 'That could work against good investigative reporting.'

Robert Maclennan (Liberal Democrat) called the proposal 'an astonishing incursion' into press freedom.

Andreas Whittam Smith, editor of the Independent, said a statutory body would be 'extremely bad news'. Such legislation would carry public interest defences, 'but our experience is that those clauses are never effective in the courts'. Newspapers had been forced to hand over unpublished photographs to police, and been fined for protecting sources.

Sir David English, chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, described the idea of statutory controls as sinister, adding: 'Only Nazi and communist regimes have ever brought the press under this sort of control in Europe.'

Kelvin McKenzie, editor of the Sun, said: 'I am not going to have some clapped-out judge and two busybodies deciding what our readers want to read.'