Editors attack privacy law plans

(First Edition)

NORMAN LAMONT'S Access card debt, David Mellor's free holiday, Harvey Proctor's rent boys and Michael Mates's letter to Asil Nadir may never have been reported if laws to protect privacy existed, a newspaper editors' pressure group warned yesterday.

The editors, in an 'alternative white paper' published a month before the Government is to announce its plans for privacy legislation, present the media's case against new restraints and regulation and list 24 investigative articles from newspapers, television and radio that would have been threatened if such laws existed.

The author of the document, Professor Hugh Stephenson of City University, London, said that the effect of privacy laws would be to create 'a charter for Hello-type journalism'. They would also affect book publishing, he said: 'If you introduce a principle that nobody can publish something that causes substantial distress to a person of ordinary sensibilities, that rules out a lot of biography.'

His report said: 'A story that a wife-strangler on release from prison is living with his prison therapist or that a dismissed hospital consultant had had a close personal relationship with the chief executive of her employing hospital trust may currently be run because of the wider implications . . . but would be inhibited by new privacy legislation.'

He said: 'There is no evidence of such widespread dissatisfaction with the present general balance in law between privacy and freedom of investigation, over the whole spectrum of privacy, as to warrant primary legislation to create an entirely new civil wrong.'

James Bishop, of the Association of British Editors - one of three groups backing the initiative - conceded that newspapers had sometimes gone too far but said legislation would tilt the balance too far against the right to know.

'All politicians would prefer to be able to control everything that is said about their activities,' he said.