Press faces legal controls and stiff fines to curb 'excesses'

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The Independent Online
Newspapers will be fined and ordered to print corrections if they breach guidelines on press behaviour and accuracy, under the recommendations of an official report from Sir David Calcutt, QC.

Sir David's report, which landed on ministers' desks on Friday, envisages the creation of a statutory body to regulate newspapers. Ministers are already divided about the desirability of statutory regulation of the press.

The proposals provoked anger yesterday from Lord McGregor of Durris, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, the voluntary body set up two years ago to deal with press standards. He said: 'If he is proposing to set up a statutory body I regard that as a disaster for our democracy and I am exceedingly alarmed.

'However emolliently the phrasing of a proposal for a statutory body may be presented, it would be appointed by the government under legislation framed by the government and funded by the government. At the end of the day it would be an agency of government. When a government's political interests are involved they will utilise their statutory body.'

The complaints commission was set up after an earlier report from a committee under Sir David which said that voluntary regulation should be given another try. If it failed, the government should take statutory powers.

David Mellor, then the minister responsible for the press, warned that newspapers were drinking at 'the last-chance saloon'. Now Sir David Calcutt, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, argues that the voluntary route has indeed failed to curb press excesses - a view rejected by Lord McGregor.

A statutory body would probably be set up under the Lord Chancellor's department.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage, Peter Brooke, who is responsible for media affairs, is cautious about legislation which could impinge on press freedom. However Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, are thought to be warming towards the creation of a statutory body.

Following press coverage of the Royal Family's marital difficulties, and attacks on government ministers, Conservative MPs have taken a steadily tougher view about the need for legislation. Mr Hurd last year warned of the effects of undermining the Royal Family.

Sir David's proposals, which were predicted by the Independent last week, include measures on privacy and trespass, designed to prevent electronic bugging and interception of telephone conversations. These are likely to be more broadly acceptable, as long as they are framed to apply generally and not directed simply at the press. Sir David's earlier report recommended the introduction of three criminal offences for journalistic trespass, none of which has been introduced by the Government.

His new recommendations will probably be published on 28 January. The following day, MPs will debate a Private Member's Bill on standards of reporting, proposed by Clive Soley, Labour MP for Hammersmith.

His Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill would put editors under a legal duty to correct factual inaccuracies, and create a statutory, publicly-funded Independent Press Authority, dominated by non-journalists. The authority would adjudicate in disputes over publication of corrections and, if necessary, take cases to the courts.

Although ministers have serious reservations about the Soley proposals they are unlikely to oppose it on second reading. But they may try to amend it, thereby using it as a vehicle to frame their own legislation.

Mr Mellor asked Sir David last July to consider whether present arrangements for the press 'should be modified or placed on a statutory basis', and whether 'any further measures may be needed to deal with intrusions into personal privacy'. Shortly afterwards, Mr Mellor himself became a press target, because of his affair with an actress, and he resigned in the autumn. Mr Mellor, however, is still an opponent of statutory restrictions.

(Photograph omitted)

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