Cabinet split on privacy law

A COMPREHENSIVE White Paper on press regulation will be published next month - but ministers have yet to agree on introducing a new civil law of privacy.

The high-powered Cabinet Committee on Home Affairs this week gave clearance to Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, to proceed with his long-awaited White Paper on the press.

But despite the outcry last year over the publication by the Daily Mirror of clandestine pictures of the Princess of Wales exercising in a private gym, ministers have not yet committed themselves to a new privacy tort, favoured by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

The Cabinet is still divided over whether a new civil law to protect both public figures and ordinary citizens from press intrusion is desirable. The Prime Minister is among those having doubts about the use of a new civil statute.

In a clear sign that ministers are still hesitant about curbs on media excesses - five years after a warning by David Mellor, when he was a Home Office minister, that the press were 'drinking in the Last Chance Saloon' - officials acknowledge that parts of the White Paper will be tentative rather than definite proposals for legislation.

The White Paper will recommit the Government to criminal legislation designed to outlaw the kind of unauthorised electronic surveillance and bugging used to expose the extra-marital affair that halted Mr Mellor's ministerial career.

But it will be more cautious in dealing with the proposed civil tort, though it will outline possible ways of ensuring that such a law was not only used by the rich and famous, for example by creating an equivalent of the small claims court.

In cases both of the criminal law and the possible use of a new civil statute, the White Paper is expected to discuss a possible public interest defence that can be entered by journalists, where the purpose of intrusion can be shown to have such a purpose.

The White Paper is expected to argue that the press has taken an important step forward in self-regulation with the Press Complaints Commission's appointment last month of Professor Robert Pinker as its first privacy commissioner. In cases where there have been extreme breaches of privacy, Professor Pinker will be able to recommend that publishers discipline editors.

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