In a forthright condemnation of the current system of press self- regulation, the Government also agreed with Sir David Calcutt QC, whose widely leaked review of the subject was published yesterday, that the Press Complaints Commission lacked independence and was ineffective.
Extending the civil law to protect personal privacy, ruled out in an earlier report by Sir David, would represent a fundamental change of political and legal thinking. Each of several inquiries that have examined such a change in the past has rejected it. Countries that have privacy laws normally guarantee freedom of expression under their constitutions.
Announcing the Government's provisional decisions in the Commons, Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, said the commission was not an effective regulator of the press.
The Government would also legislate to create three new criminal offences to deal with physical intrusion and covert surveillance, as recommended by Sir David, and would examine the extent to which the Data Protection Act could be used to curb intrusions into personal privacy.
The decision to look into the introduction of a tort (civil wrong) of privacy was underpinned by the Prime Minister's office, which emphasised that the 'political will' for such a measure had now been established. While there is no prospect of legal aid being extended to complainants seeking injunctions or damages in the courts, a spokesman said: 'There has to be some way of ensuring that it can be afforded.'
That could take the form of introducing cheap summary hearings in cases involving modest compensation.
Dealing with a further area of controversy, Mr Brooke said the heads of MI5 and GCHQ denied any responsibility for recording intimate telephone calls allegedly by the Prince and Princess of Wales. That was the first time a minister had commented publicly on operational security service matters.
In a report written in often scathing language, and bitterly attacked by editors, lawyers and civil liberties campaigners, Sir David lambasted his anticipated press critics and the complaints commission - a body set up by the industry and, he thought, over-favourable to it. But his proposal for a statutory regulatory tribunal with power to fine newspapers to the extent of 1 per cent of their net annual revenue has virtually no chance of implementation.
Anticipating attacks that a privacy law would amount to an Establishment charter, Downing Street emphasised that the Cabinet had heavily endorsed Sir David's view that 'while everyone is entitled to protection of their privacy, those persons discharging public functions must be prepared to expect the level of that protection to be reduced to the extent . . .that it is necessary for the public to be informed about matters directly affecting the discharge of their public functions'.
Geoffrey Robertson QC, a leading media lawyer, said the three proposed criminal offences, with fines of pounds 5,000, would not deter cowboys, but would affect valuable investigations.
Ann Clwyd, shadow Heritage Secretary, warned that Labour would not support legislation that prevented proper scrutiny of the lives of the rich and powerful. She criticised the report for ignoring the need for a Freedom of Information Act and a right of reply 'for people whose lives were wrecked through publication of grossly inaccurate stories'.
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