PM against privacy law 'by any method'

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TONY BLAIR opposes a privacy law, by legislation, or "backdoor" application of the European Convention on Human Rights through the courts, his spokesman said last night.

In the Commons William Hague, the Tory leader, asked for assurance about the consequences of the Human Rights Bill, due for its second reading on Monday. Mr Blair said: "We ... are listening to those representations." Mr Hague's questioning was prompted by an interview by Lord Irvine, Lord Chancellor, with the New Statesman, suggesting the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) should take "prior restraint" to curb exposes like the News of the World report on the relationship of Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, and his diary secretary, Gaynor Regan.

Lord Irvine wants the independent PCC to complement the Human Rights Bill with procedures to impose fines of up to pounds 10,000 on papers that breach its privacy guidelines.

In the Commons Mr Hague asked for assurance that there would be no "backdoor" privacy law imposed by judge-made interpretation of the European Convention. Mr Blair said: "It is not the case that it will lead to a privacy law. The European Convention on Human Rights is a measure that allows us to claim in this country what otherwise we would have to claim in Europe."

But Mr Blair's spokesman said later that unless voluntary agreement could be reached with papers strengthening self-regulation, they could end up with a privacy law imposed by the courts. Mr Blair, Lord Irvine, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Media, Culture and Sport, had discussed the issues earlier this week. "We don't want a privacy law, front-door or backdoor," he said. "We are trying to ensure that we do not end up with a privacy law."

Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, former PCC head, also writing in the New Statesman, called for non-press industry personnel with powers to adjudicate but without power to enforce its decisions. "Self-regulation, since the demise of the Press Council, has worked only to protect the press against legislative incursion on its unacceptable activities. It has not worked for the public. Self-regulation will always protect the self."