Stephen Glover on the Press

If people want a privacy law, then it needs to be openly debated
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The Independent Online

Bit by bit, as I have observed before, judges are introducing aspects of a privacy law under the guise of the Human Rights Act. But the pressure is not only coming from them. MPs are also flexing their muscles. The Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee last week announced an inquiry into the recent News of the World (NoW) telephone-tapping scandal. Les Hinton, chief executive of News International, which owns the NoW, is likely to be called.

Meanwhile the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which is the press's self-regulating watchdog, seems to be sensing that times are a-changing. Nearly seven years ago, it rejected a complaint by the newsreader Anna Ford that her privacy had been infringed by the Daily Mail and OK! magazine, both of which had run photographs of her on a public beach in Majorca.

Yet last week, the PCC upheld an almost identical complaint by the former model Elle Macpherson, who had maintained that her privacy had been infringed by Hello! magazine, which published a picture of her in a bikini on a beach in Mustique. Although the beach was technically private, it was accessible to the public, and it is very difficult to see why it was all right to carry photographs of Anna but not of Elle. The climate has changed.

In many ways this may be a good thing. Why shouldn't Ms Ford and Ms Macpherson be entitled to privacy on holiday, as they are in their own homes? Yet it seems to me that if people want a privacy law it should be openly debated rather than being introduced by the back door. Ad hoc privacy measures are very likely to spare a number of rogues.

With this in mind, I was concerned to learn last week that the Government intends to introduce legislation for tougher sentences for those who obtain personal details, such as bank and telephone records. This follows a proposal by Richard Thomas, the rather sinisterly named Information Commissioner. In nine cases out of 10, most of us would support him: for perfectly good reasons we don't want anyone trawling through our bank accounts. But what if we were laundering Russian mafia money?

There are surely cases when it would be perfectly legitimate for a journalist to comb through the private affairs of public figures. One thinks of The Guardian and Jonathan Aitken some years ago. The Government says that existing legal defences for journalists, namely that they are acting in the public interest, will be maintained. But mightn't a journalist embarking on an investigation be deterred by the prospect of two years in clink, as opposed to the present maximum fine of £5,000?

The Government's championing of Mr Thomas's proposal worries me. It seems to me that there are powerful people who, realising that a privacy law would never pass wholesale through the House of Commons, are trying to introduce one piecemeal.

ACCORDING TO the World Association of Newspapers, worldwide newspaper circulation rose by 2.36 per cent in 2005, with new titles being launched at a remarkable rate. The total number of paid-for daily newspaper titles worldwide exceeded 10,000 for the first time, representing an increase of 13 per cent since 2001.

Many of these new titles were in the Third World, where rising incomes and literacy are driving higher newspaper sales. But the World Association of Newspapers claims the number of new titles has increased even in Europe and North America, though admittedly some of these appear to be freesheets.

Pundits who follow trends in the British press may feel justified in prophesying the death of newspapers. No one could conceivably look at the global picture and draw the same conclusion.

Shift in jobs - and personality - for Con

Con Coughlin, who has just been relieved of his executive duties as foreign editor of The Daily Telegraph, has a reputation of being one of the lads; the life and soul of every party. Journalists love him - or used to. For there are disturbing signs that Mr Coughlin undergoes a personality shift when given executive responsibility.

Rumours first surfaced after Con became executive editor of The Sunday Telegraph in 1999 that he was no longer the happy, smiling colleague who had brought so much sunshine into journalists' lives. But this was a mere prelude to his tumultuous six-month tenure as executive foreign editor of The Daily Telegraph. Con managed to mislay eight foreign correspondents during this brief reign of terror, the last of whom, Patrick Bishop, himself a former foreign editor of The Daily Telegraph, departed last week.

Now the Pol Pot of the news desk will doubtless again become the engaging writer whom everyone loves.

The 'Sun' shows whose side it's really on

Two of The Sun's core beliefs were at odds in its brilliant scoop last week. The paper is wildly pro-American, and believes Uncle Sam is always right. This is the view of its owner, Rupert Murdoch. So passionate is the paper's pro-Americanism that it has systematically underplayed bad news coming out of Iraq.

The Sun is also the squaddies' paper, and holds that the British Army, though small, is made up of the finest body of men in the world, as no doubt it is. More servicemen read the paper than any other.

When The Sun's defence correspondent Tom Newton Dunn was passed (or e-mailed?) a copy of a video by someone in the Ministry of Defence, the paper was, therefore, in a ticklish position. The video, which showed two US pilots mounting an attack in which Lance Corporal Matty Hull was killed and other British soldiers wounded, had been withheld on the orders of the Pentagon. The paper knew its release would expose the US authorities to criticism, partly because of the circumstances of L/Cpl Hull's death, and partly because of the implication of a cover-up.

The newspaper's appetite for a scoop, as well as its loyalty to the British Army, prevailed. Even so, it was in a twitter. The engaging Trevor Kavanagh, who plays the role of Mr Murdoch's political commissar, was pressed into action to remind readers that "professional US armed forces are courageous and doughty allies" and "we should never forget these guys are on our side, and that one day soon we may all need the cloak of protection they extended in two world wars".

Let us not question Mr Kavanagh's version of history here, but only observe that his emollient words were widely ignored, and that even the normally uncritically pro-American Daily Telegraph was driven to question the actions of our closest ally.

scmgox@aol.com

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