Laws on press privacy rejected by ministers

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The Independent Online
Proposals to make the intrusive use of long-lens photography and bugging by newspapers criminal offences will be ruled out by the Government next week.

In a blanket rejection of any form of statutory control of the press, Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, will tell the House of Commons that the system of self-regulation under the Press Complaints Commission, which has operated with greater effect in recent months, will continue, albeit in strengthened form.

While the Government had been expected to resist calls for a statutory body to regulate newspaper conduct, the industry has been steeling itself for legislation to create three new criminal offences to deal with physical intrusion and covert surveillance. At the very least, draft legislation for consultation had been anticipated.

Instead, Mrs Bottomley will outline, probably on Tuesday, the Government's attraction to the idea of a compensation fund for victims of press intrusion. The precise mechanism for such a scheme will be a matter for the industry, although it is clear that whatever emerges will have to be press-funded and administered by the PCC.

Although a compensation fund is bound to meet opposition from a newspaper industry uncomfortable with any mechanism that provides payments to complainants, Lord Wakeham, the commission's chairman, has warned that just such a scheme must play a crucial part in beefing up self-regulation.

Mrs Bottomley will also make it clear that the Government wants the industry to tighten up its code of practice in line with the original recommendations made by Sir David Calcutt, the QC charged by the Government in 1989 with recommending how to give greater protection to individual privacy.

In particular, newspapers will be expected to strengthen its definition of what constitutes an individual's private life to include matters of health, home, personal relationships, correspondence and documents, but not trade or business.

At the same time, there will be a clampdown on the circumstances in which editors can justify an invasion of privacy.

In addition, the Government will ask that the process by which the industry's code of practice is drawn up be made more open and transparent. The current code committee consists entirely of editors, chaired by Sir David English, chairman of Associated Newspapers. One option the press will be under pressure to consider is introducing lay members on to the committee.