Politics: Press freedom to rest in hands of judges

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The Independent Online
The Lord Chancellor conceded yesterday it was "very likely" that judges would apply their own law on press privacy. Michael Streeter and Colin Brown look at press freedom and the Royal Family.

Lord Irvine insisted that the freedom of the press would be safeguarded by both British and European judges, following the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, and said the Government had no plans for privacy legislation of its own.

His statement came as Downing Street and Buckingham Palace denied a report that the Queen's private secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes, had been secretly pressing the Government to use the convention to protect the Royal Family from press intrusion into their private lives.

Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, there was an agreement by the press to avoid intrusion. But the Government responded to fears that the incorporation of the Convention could be used by the Royals and celebrities to seek injunctions to stop accurate press disclosures about their private lives.

Opening the Lords second reading debate on the Human Rights Bill, he said: "I say as strongly as I can to the press, I understand your concerns but let me assure you that press freedom will be in safe hands with our British judges and with the judges of the European Court."

Accepting the likelihood of judges developing a common law on privacy, he added: "Any law of privacy will be a better law after incorporation."

The European Court in Strasbourg - which will remain as the ultimate arbiter of the Convention - had already shown its hostility to attempts by public figures to restrict comment, a view echoed by British judges, said Lord Irvine. He said he saw no prospect of late-night injunctions disrupting newspaper publication "if the press have solid grounds for maintaining that there is a public interest in publishing".

The Lord Chancellor went on to confirm ministers' backing for media self- regulation, saying: "The Government is not introducing a privacy statute. It has resisted demands that it should."

Legal experts have already predicted a judge-made law of privacy, but they suggest judges will pay similar attention to the right of freedom of expression - also enshrined in the Convention.

A Downing Street source dismissed as "bizarre, eccentric 24-carat tosh" a report that Sir Robert had intervened. The source added: "I think someone is out to get Robert Fellowes." Buckingham Palace was also forthright in its denials of the report as "completely without foundation".

A Palace spokesman said: "At no stage has the Palace tried, either publicly or privately, to seek special treatment on behalf of the Queen and members of the Royal Family."

For the Conservatives, Lord Kingsland confirmed they would not vote against the Bill. But he stressed: "If this Bill goes on the statute book it will have a clear and defining influence on the balance of power between the legislature and the judiciary."

He said he supported the terms of the Convention "wholeheartedly" but he was concerned about its effects on existing British legislation.

The human rights lawyer, Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, called for "some genuinely independent authority", ideally the Press Complaints Commission, to maintain the sensitive balance between free speech and personal privacy. "If that happens, then the development of a right of privacy ... will not lead, normally, to judicial intervention against the media," said the Liberal Democrat peer.