Press hostile on 'intrusion' scheme

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The Independent Online
A NEW compensation scheme for victims of press intrusion will be proposed by Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, in a package of measures likely to be announced within two weeks.

Mrs Bottomley's proposals are part of a quid pro quo under which the Government's long-debated plans for privacy legislation are shelved.

Nevertheless they are likely to meet with opposition from the newspaper industry, which has been hostile to any mechanism providing for payment of complainants.

The Government will also press ahead with plans to outlaw "bugging and burgling" by the media.

The decision to go ahead with the new policy was taken by the Cabinet just before the Conservative leadership crisis, when Stephen Dorrell, now Secretary of State for Health, was running the Heritage department.

Last week Mrs Bottomley endorsed the policy only days after taking over. She has made it clear that she does not intend to re-open the issue, which has been one of the Government's thorniest problems.

The precise format in which Mrs Bottomley will outline her plans has yet to be determined. Some sources are pressing her to delay publication to allow more preparatory negotiation with the newspaper industry.

Mrs Bottomley's department, however, has been anxious to publish its plans and is aware of the lengthy delay which followed the publication of the original Calcutt report into the press.

One likely solution for Mrs Bottomley would be to publicise the proposals in a response to the National Heritage Select Committee. Under those plans the threat of privacy legislation will remain in the background, with the Government arguing that it could be reactivated if the media misbehaves.

Backing the present self-regulatory system overseen by the Press Complaints Commission, the National Heritage department will consult with the newspaper industry on the establishment of a compensation fund to reward victims. Mrs Bottomley is unlikely to spell out either specfic proposed sums of compensation or the total fund. But she will also call for a toughening of the Commission's code of practice. Further measures will be taken to introduce legal measures to tackle intrusive use of long-lens photography, bugging and trespass to obtain information.

All three activities will be proposed as criminal offences, although the Government has promised to consult with interested parties on the wording of the law.

That means that a Bill to create the offences may not be in the Queen's Speech delivered later this year.

The compensation scheme for victims will be the most contentious element of the package.