The Prime Minister's aides yesterday delivered a stern rebuke for Lord Irvine of Lairg after the Lord Chancellor caused a media storm over his support for new privacy provisions which would have gagged any reporting of the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's extra-marital affair.
But last night in the House of Lords, the Lord Chancellor insisted the Press Complaints Commission should take a tougher line on infringements of its code of conduct. He told the Lords the PCC should be able to award compensation. "I do hope that the press itself will lay down proper standards and procedures to protect the public from illegitimate intrusion into their privacy," Lord Irvine said.
He made it clear his proposal for prior restraint - stopping newspapers from publishing until they could justify intrusion into privacy - was still under consideration, but he did not withdraw his remarks in spite of a concerted Government attempt to disown them. The Tories attacked his call as censorship by the back door.
In Washington, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The Prime Minister's view very strongly is there will not be a privacy law by the front door or by the back door."
While Labour officials expressed irritation only in private, Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the PCC, had made his feelings public earlier in the day. He wrote to both Lord Irvine and Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to attack the notion before renewing his assault in the House of Lords.
"Press censorship of this sort is unacceptable in a democratic society - a point I think you and Government ministers recognise. It is certainly not a power the newspaper industry will ever give the PCC - rightly in my view," he wrote to Mr Smith. Such a system could only be used by public figures who had "something to hide", and in any case would be impossible to administer. It would only serve to bring newspapers into direct conflict with government.
Lord Wakeham underlined his opposition to Lord Irvine in the Lords third reading of the Human Rights Bill incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, which some critics claim risks introducing a privacy law "by the back door". The PCC chairman used the debate to renew his warnings that media self-regulation would be undermined by the privacy provisions of the Bill.
Lord Wakeham, a Tory former Cabinet minister, told peers: "The choice is not necessarily between the PCC and a better PCC. It may be between the PCC and no PCC, or at least a seriously diminished one. That would put at risk all aspects of our work, by far the bulk of it which doesn't relate to privacy."
William Hague, the Conservative leader, earlier claimed ministers were trying to suppress comment and that they believed "writing stories about Robin Cook's behaviour as Foreign Secretary should be against the law".
"Not content with a huge majority in the House of Commons the Government now seems to be arguing that they should not be subject to any scrutiny at all," he said in a speech to Tories in Neil Hamilton's former seat at Tatton.Reuse content