Editor of 'People' repeats denial on telephone tapping: Allegations of a minister's affair with an actress focus attention on press regulation and electronic eavesdropping

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The Independent Online
THE PEOPLE newspaper tapped no telephones in its report of an alleged relationship between David Mellor, Secretary of State for National Heritage, and Antonia de Sancha, Bill Hagerty, its editor, has insisted.

The implication, reinforced by its sister paper the Daily Mirror yesterday, is that however unpleasant the method of recording the conversations Mr Mellor is said to have had with Miss de Sancha, it was legal.

Many commentators believe the law has little impact on the twilight zone of the tap and the bug. The 1985 Interception of Communications Act made the intentional interception by anyone of a communication in the course of transmission on a public telephone system a criminal offence, except where a warrant is issued by the Home Secretary.

The 1989 Security Service Act went a little further with its attempt to stop MI5 entering buildings and planting bugs or listening devices without a warrant. But restrictions on the activities of ordinary individuals seem to be few.

There is little doubt that a tapping operation involving tampering with British Telecom or Mercury equipment would fall within the remit of the 1985 Act. But there are differences of opinion about bugging or taping devices inserted in telephone handsets.

Laurence Lustgarten, reader in law at Warwick University and author of a forthcoming book on national security, said there was no sensible reason why the 1985 Act should not cover such devices. 'The Act doesn't say anything about the precise mechanism used,' he said. The alternative and probably majority view is that the Act cannot be used.

James Michael, a media law specialist at University College London points to a court decision a few weeks ago where radio interception by the police of a conversation on a portable phone used inside the home was found not to have breached the Act. 'If the conversation is recorded by a voice-activated device or inserted in a telephone handset, it is not caught by the Act,' he said.

In addition, an offence under the Act is only committed if the deed is done without the consent of both parties. This lets off the hook anyone who inserted a device in their own telephone. Duncan Campbell, the journalist at the receiving end of many a bugging attempt, believes it would be the same if the device was planted by the owner or renter of the telephone, rather than the caller. Any prosecution under these circumstances would be unlikely to succeed, he predicted, because the court would be satisfied that the telephone's owner had consented.