Press privacy code under new scrutiny

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The Independent Online
New privacy provisions proposed by Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, could have barred the press from reporting on Robin Cook's affair with his constituency secretary, Gaynor Regan. Colin Brown and Paul McCann detail the suggestions which were last night dismissed by Tory MPs as censorship "by the back door".

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, has thrown open the debate about the invasion of privacy by saying newspapers should be forced to prove there is a public interest before printing stories such as the one about Robin Cook's private life.

In a magazine interview published today, he said there should be a mechanism whereby the Press Complaints Commission would stop stories being printed unless papers could prove there was a public interest in disclosure. He said he was "keeping up pressure" on the PCC to introduce such a mechanism along with procedures to compensate victims of intrusion with sums of up to pounds 10,000 payable by newspapers that breach commission guidelines.

Perhaps inevitably, Lord Irvine's comments immediately returned attention to Mr Cook and the furore over his relationship with his constituency secretary.

When he was asked how such a proposal would have worked in the case of the Foreign Secretary and Ms Regan, he replied: "Robin Cook is a public figure. On the other hand, I am not aware that he has ever lectured anyone about moral values."

And asked whether he would have expected the PCC to order the News of the World not to reveal the story of the minister and his mistress, Lord Irvine said: "I would hope that that would be the view that the PCC would form in a case like that, yes. What public interest is there in disclosing that?"

His remarks in the New Statesman fuelled the row over Mr Cook, after the Government mounted a successful rescue operation to destroy an attack by Michael Howard and Tory backbenchers on the Foreign Secretary in the Commons.

Tory MPs last night hit back by accusing the Government of seeking to introduce press restrictions "by the back door".

A Tory party spokesman said last night "It seems in the future that these sorts of issues will not be able to be reported. They have decided the questions they don't like answering should not be asked. These are hardly the comments of a man who is of a government which is against a privacy law.

"On the back of the reports about the Foreign Secretary and his abuse of ministerial power it does seem to be a severe misjudgement."

Tony Blair had earlier dismissed the Tory assault as opposition by "trivial pursuits" but friends of the Foreign Secretary were relieved the carefully planned counter-attack on the Tories had secured Mr Cook's position, which, barring further accidents, was no longer under threat at Westminster.

Labour spin-doctors were satisfied the steam had now run out of the campaign to force the Foreign Secretary to go. A Tory MP said: "They did a good job. We couldn't keep it going."

The likelihood of a new code being drawn up by the PCC, particularly one which included a mechanism for "prior constraint" was less clear. Editors who make up the PCC have freshly rewritten the code of practice following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Industry observers last night said it was unlikely the PCC would be prepared to introduce a system of prior constraint.