Calcutt's controls on press raise doubts among MPs

THERE WERE signs yesterday that MPs were getting cold feet over calls for more press regulation in the light of tough recommendations by Sir David Calcutt for a new tribunal, armed with fining powers, to enforce statutory curbs on invasions of privacy and innaccuracy.

Despite the considerable impatience that has been building up, among Conservative backbenchers in particular, over excessive media intrusion into the private lives of the Royal Family and other public figures, what one Tory MP called the 'draconian' proposals contained in Sir David's report may lead to a swing behind the more limited right-of-correction measure sponsored by the Labour MP Clive Soley.

Many MPs are likely to back another recommendation in Sir David's 70-page report - legal restrictions on the use of photographic devices and bugging equipment except where this was in the public interest, for example, to expose crime. But they were uneasy yesterday over the overall thrust of Sir David's scheme, which has divided ministers.

John Bowis, Tory MP for Battersea, said: 'We have to be very careful not to endanger a free press because of the understandable irritations that come from offensive reports of the private lives of particular individuals . . .'

The private-member Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill sponsored by Mr Soley, the Labour MP for Hammersmith, would put editors under a legal duty to correct inaccuracies. A statutory, lay-dominated, Independent Press Authority would have a single statutory power to adjudicate over corrections that could not be agreed and, in the last resort, take cases to the courts.

If the Bill - supported by a number of prominent backbench Tories including Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Southend, and many Labour MPs but few Liberal Democrats - passes its crucial Second Reading on 29 January, Mr Soley plans to amend it to include a freedom of expression guarantee similar to that in article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, and a measure to ensure authority members were independent of government.

Mr Soley, who yesterday tabled a question to the Prime Minister urging him to introduce a freedom of speech measure, said: 'The Calcutt recommendations we have seen so far do nothing to protect and enhance press freedom.'

Labour's position on the regulation issue is, as one MP put it, still 'muddled', but a right to have inaccuracies corrected is likely to be the most many MPs would support.

Ann Clwyd, shadow Secretary of State for National Heritage and past sponsor of a right of reply Bill, said: 'It is right that people should be able to correct inaccuracies about themselves. That should not have to depend upon the whim of newspaper editors.'

Brian Sedgemore, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, said: 'All the rest is shorthand for censorship in the media to help public figures.'

As Sir Bernard Ingham, Baroness Thatcher's former press secretary, warned Tory MPs that it was a 'a very big step' to go down the route of denying free speech, Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, who also has reservations, was studying the report before presenting it to Cabinet on Thursday.

No decisions will be taken at that stage and the report, which the Prime Minister had not seen yesterday, may be further considered by a special committee of Cabinet ministers, with final conclusions probably delayed until after an inquiry into media intrusion by the Commons select committee on national heritage is completed, probably late next month.

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