Ministers reject legal curbs on the press: New privacy law, but no draconian tribunal

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT has rejected statutory regulations over the Press and is preparing to announce the establishment of a voluntary press ombudsman to handle complaints about newspaper reports.

A senior minister has informed the Independent that a forthcoming White Paper on the press will propose an ombudsman with no statutory powers. But to answer the charge that the ombudsman has no 'teeth', he will be backed by new civil and criminal laws on privacy.

The Government has rejected one of the main recommendations in the Calcutt report on the press: a statutory press tribunal with far-reaching powers, including the power to impose heavy fines on newspapers, to restrain publication and to pay compensation.

However, the decision to support voluntary powers for the ombudsman will be underpinned by legislation to give complainants the right to sue for damages in civil courts under a new tort for cases of intrusion of privacy.

There will also be new criminal laws to make it an offence to obtain personal information through intrusion on private property, the use of 'bugging' or surveillance devices, photographs and recordings.

Those powers could have prevented the publication of the royal 'Squidgy' and 'Camillagate' tapes, and topless photographs of the Duchess of York. John Major was against statutory controls, and might have been accused of running a vendetta against the press if he had bowed to pressure from his own backbenchers.

The White Paper was delayed after a Cabinet committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, failed to reach agreement on the details in July. But it reached broad agreement against taking statutory action. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, opposed statutory controls.

That was underlined in a consultation document by the Lord Chancellor's office in July, proposing civil remedies for invasion of privacy. It said: 'The Government does not believe that a statutory ombudsman would be an appropriate means of offering redress.

'On the other hand, a voluntary ombudsman established by the press, in whom publishers and complainants alike had confidence, would provide a quicker and less formal remedy than court proceedings in privacy cases where the press was involved.

'This would offer the best remedy for many complaints, especially the more minor ones, because it would be cheaper and more accessible. It would also reduce the number of cases which would be taken before the courts.'

The Lord Chancellor's office pointed out that a voluntary ombudsman would have no powers over intrusions into privacy committed by people other than members of the press, but the threat of damages awarded by the civil courts under the proposed laws on invasion of privacy would reinforce his decisions. 'An ombudsman scheme and a statutory remedy could therefore be complementary to each other,' it said.

Criminal laws to protect privacy were recommended by the first Calcutt committee report in 1990. The Government was urged to enact them in the second report by Sir David Calcutt, QC, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in January, this year. A public interest defence would be available.

The White Paper, to be published by Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, in mid-September, is likely to upset both those demanding tougher controls on the press, and press editors and proprietors who oppose government curbs.

It will be published as a response to the cross-party Commons select committee on national heritage chaired by Gerald Kaufman, which called for a statutory ombudsman, a powerful press complaints commission, and an access to information Bill.