Donald Trelford on The Press

If this Bill is passed, it could mean the end of investigative journalism
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The Independent Online

There is a serious risk that a Bill criminalising investigative journalism will creep into law. An amendment to section 55 of the Data Protection Act, pressed by the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, would introduce jail sentences of up to two years for breaches by journalists. The Bill, still containing this explosive clause, is currently in the House of Lords.

At present, such breaches (there have been very few) are normally dealt with by magistrates' courts. They can choose to pass the offender on to the Crown Court, which has the power to impose unlimited fines. No journalist has ever been found guilty under the Act, so it is baffling as to why Mr Thomas thinks custodial sentences are needed.

His argument goes back to the case in which the royal correspondent of the News of the World, Clive Goodman, was jailed (under a different Act) for phone tapping. Mr Thomas says he saw over 300 invoices paid by newspapers to inquiry agents, and that the tougher law is required to stamp out this practice. Yet he has produced no evidence that any of these inquiries were illegal.

The danger now is that, if the amendment passes into law, journalists could face a jail sentence simply for picking up the telephone and starting an investigation on the basis of information received. There is a public- interest defence, but it is useless in practice, since the journalist would have to show that his inquiries referred to a matter of great importance, such as wrongdoing by a public figure. This defence would be impossible if the investigation had only just started and nothing had been proved.

The journalist's inquiries might also show that that information was false. But by then, the offence would have been committed.

The Newspaper Society, the Society of Editors, and other industry bodies are busy lobbying behind the scenes to get the clause dropped. The Government has said that it doesn't want to jail journalists and is considering amendments, but Mr Thomas is so committed to this change that it fears he could resign or make damaging public statements if it drops it.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, says: "This measure is wholly disproportionate. It would stop investigative journalism in its tracks, for what journalist would risk his future and his family's future for a story? It would be one of the most draconian restrictions on the press in the Western world." It might also be a breach of free expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

A number of newspapers have already stopped using inquiry agents in the wake of the Goodman case, and the code of practice has been strengthened. The industry would be willing to work with the Information Commissioner on the issues that trouble him, but not if this clause goes through.

The Government is under some pressure to push the legislation through, because the jailing amendment to the DPA is included in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which is at an advanced stage and includes a provision to prevent prison officers going on strike.

There is some concern that, instead of simply dropping the clause or excluding journalists from its provisions, Parliament will concentrate on strengthening the public-interest defence. If the Government goes ahead with introducing the jailing of journalists for doing their job, tyrants such as Robert Mugabe will nod their approval and conclude that the Mother of Parliaments has given them carte blanche to do the same.

* OF THE various changes that Will Lewis has brought to the Daily Telegraph, one seems to me to be a mistake. That is, his decision to put a bylined column across the page above the letters, instead of below them as before. This has the effect of demoting the letters page in the eyes of readers, when in fact they should be regarded as a prime resource – and free copy into the bargain.

I know that bloggers have changed the relationship between newspapers and their readers, allowing people to add online comments to most articles (I was very grateful myself to readers for pointing out a statistical error I had made in an article on cricket for the Telegraph). But the readers deserve their own page, especially in a newspaper such as The Daily Telegraph. There should be some way of rejigging the page to make the readers feel that their opinions are valued more highly.

IT IS hard now to recall the power that Paul Johnson's media column in The Spectator used to have in the 1980s. Any newspaper straying from the pure Thatcherite line – Peter Preston of The Guardian and I were the favoured victims of his scorn – got a weekly lashing.

I was astonished, therefore, to read a review in the same magazine of a new book by Johnson, which goes some way towards trashing both the book and the man. Andro Linklater says that Johnson is "egotistic" and "not an original thinker". He adds that the book "puts one in mind of a hot cross bun, sweet and seasonable, and dotted with currants of beguiling vanity, but not substantial." I wish I'd said that.

* DID DANIEL DAY-LEWIS ever meet the late Tiny Rowland, one-time chairman of The Observer? The question is prompted by the actor's Oscar-winning performance in There Will be Blood. There is a scene in a restaurant where he humiliates an oilman with such bullying, ego-bursting bravado that I was taken back about 20 years to Lonrho's Cheapside boardroom, where Rowland took a perverse pleasure in doing the same to his fellow-directors – but never, I'm relieved to say, to me.

Donald Trelford was editor of The Observer, 1975-93,and is Emeritus Professor in Journalism Studies at Sheffield University