Major rejects legal curbs on the press: No 10 pours cold water on Calcutt's tribunal plan but pressure grows for civil law to protect privacy

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The Independent Online
John Major is being strongly advised from within the Cabinet to consider introducing a civil law of privacy alongside restrictions on the media's use of electronic bugging and long-range photographic devices.

The Prime Minister's office made clear yesterday that he was against statutory controls on the press and opposed to Sir David Calcutt's proposal for regulation by a new tribunal with powers to fine. Instead Mr Major is poised to back laws against eavesdropping and trespass.

But the case for a new tort (civil wrong) of privacy will also be pressed when the Cabinet meets tomorrow to discuss Sir David's report on the adequacy of the Press Complaints Commission, the current self-regulatory body.

At least one prominent member of the Cabinet will argue for the protection of private lives by a civil law invoking similar principles to the those applying to the tort of trespass, which protects private property.

Sir David's report, due for publication nearer the end of the month, will now be released later this week in the face of a gathering controversy over suggestions that the Prince and Princess of Wales had both used national newspapers to put forward their separate accounts of their marital rift.

A letter from Lord McGregor of Durris, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, to Sir David, which was leaked yesterday, said that he has been assured by senior officials at Buckingham Palace that neither the Prince nor Princess had been involved in supplying information to newspapers.

After receiving those assurances, Lord McGregor delivered the PCC's now famous statement that some sections of the press had 'dabbled their fingers in the stuff of other people's souls'.

His letter, sent last month, said that he had subsequently discovered that the Princess of Wales had been co-operating with some newspapers, and made herself available for photo-calls.

In spite of No 10's dismissal of the leaking of the letter yesterday as 'very much a side issue', it has clearly caused deep embarrassment to the Establishment, parts of which, according to Lord McGregor, had long known of its existence at a time of public outcry over perceived excesses of the tabloids' royal coverage.

Downing Street confirmed yesterday that Mr Major does not favour Sir David's proposal for a government-appointed tribunal to be given power in a statutory code of conduct to fine newspapers that ignore accuracy and privacy rules. But there was still a 'strong feeling' that action should be taken on the privacy of individuals and the techniques used.

The wider argument for a civil law of privacy rests on the view that there is a case for an across- the-board measure that reaches beyond the activities of the press.

But the impact of such a law - even if a 'public interest' defence was included or developed by the courts - would be most keenly felt by the media and would be strenuously opposed by newspaper editors and some ministers.

Decisions will be deferred pending the 29 January Second Reading debate on Clive Soley's Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill and next month's report on media instrusion by the Commons National Heritage Select Committee.

The heritage committee's current thinking partly reflects that of the Government - it will recommend greater controls on electronic bugging, the use of long- range telephoto devices and 'picketing' by reporters on private property.

But committee members are also deeply critical of what they view as lack of independence on the part of the Press Complaints Commission, and of the lack of remedies for complainants.

The committee is considering the idea of a network of lay-dominated regional tribunals or ombudsmen who would build up case histories and award modest compensation up to pounds 5,000 or pounds 10,000, along the lines of awards made by industrial tribunals or the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

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