`Intrusions' put privacy law back on agenda

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The Independent Online

Media Correspondent

Were revelations in the News of the World about Richard Spring's alleged "three-in-a-bed romp" an intrusion too far? Despite the Government's apparent reluctance to legislate, would a tide of popular disenchantment with the press's increasingly irresponsible behaviour now lead to privacy laws?

The wisdom in political and media circles is that Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, will resist vociferous calls from his own backbenchers to introduce privacy legislation. In doing so, he will also be ignoring the advice of Sir David Calcutt QC, the man appointed by the Government to review press self-regulation and who concluded it was not working.

With an election looming, the thinking goes, the last institutions Mr Dorrell would threaten are right-leaning newspapers on which the Conservatives will rely come polling day. With both Labour and the Liberal Democrats shying away from commitments to privacy legislation, it appears electoral imperative has helped create political consensus.

However, the coverage of Mr Spring and the paper's treatment the previous weekend of Countess Spencer, the Princess of Wales's sister-in-law, have raised concerns about the press's ability to govern itself. Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times, yesterday said some form of privacy legislation "might be a good idea - maybe it would teach a bit of discipline. We've reached a point now where the tabloids first get the story and then desperately seek out a public interest defence."

Mr Neil said he struggled to see any "public interest" in the News of the World coverage of either Mr Spring or the countess.

Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror, argued that the Establishment had only itself to blame for allowing private lives to gain public currency. "Why did Spring, or [Rupert] Pennant-Rea for that matter, resign? Because their bosses thought their standing had been affected. In forcing them to resign, the Establishment was justifying the public-interest defence the tabloids were using."

t The couple at the centre of the allegations which led to the resignation of Richard Spring have been suspended from their jobs at the life assurance company NPI while an inquiry is held, it was disclosed last night.