Law could intrude into investigations

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The Independent Online
IS THE press right when it argues that privacy legislation would obstruct legitimate investigations of serious scandals that ought to be brought before the public?

There is strong evidence that the law would have difficulty drawing a clear line between justified and unjustified invasions of privacy. Some of the most famous investigations in British press history, such as those that helped expose the effects of the drug Thalidomide, and the Soviet spy Kim Philby, would probably have been hampered if the privacy laws being considered by the Government had existed at the time.

It is thought that a White Paper expected early next year will propose three new criminal offences: entering or remaining on private property without consent; bugging; and taking photographs on private property without consent. Individuals are also likely to be given the right to sue for infringement of privacy - including the use of long-lens cameras - and 'substantial distress'. Journalists will be able to ignore these restrictions only if they can show that they were acting in the public interest.

Bruce Page, a former investigative reporter, believes several inquiries he led while working at the Sunday Times would have been seriously hindered if such legislation had existed.

In 1972 the newspaper published a story about Thalidomide, which was later proved to be responsible for severe deformities in about 450 British babies and thousands more around the world.

A key witness in helping Page with the story was a senior scientist at Distillers, the drug's British distributor. The scientist agreed to help, but only after considerable pressure. Page recalled: 'I was certainly violating his privacy at the time and I'm sure the drugs company would have stopped me if they had had a law to help them.'

Similarly, the German inventor of the drug also provided vital evidence, but only after Page had inquired into his personal life and war record.

Page said: 'Both men turned out to be key witnesses, but at the time it was impossible to say how important they were going to be - it would have been very difficult at an early stage to prove to a court that I was acting in the public interest.'

In 1967, Page helped to reveal how Kim Philby, a former MI6 agent, had been a Soviet spy. Part of his early research involved finding personal details of people involved in the scandal. 'There were plenty of people who didn't want us to do the story. They kept saying it was not in the public interest, and that we should not be looking at people's personal beliefs. I'm sure many judges would have supported this view.'

There are fears, too, that the wealthy and powerful will be able to abuse privacy legislation. Lawyers point to the way in which Robert Maxwell used the libel laws to gag newspapers. Kevin Bays, a libel lawyer with Wright Webb Syrett, whose clients include Private Eye, says: 'People like Maxwell could well argue that inquiries into aspects of his, and his family's personal wealth, are an intrusion of privacy. It will be a heyday for lawyers.'

Some modern 'investigations' would certainly have been illegal under the proposed privacy laws, notably the People's report on the affair in 1992 between David Mellor and Antonia de Sancha. Neither party gave permission for their telephone conversations at the London flat where they met to be taped. The People's public interest defence, that Mr Mellor was too tired to do his government job properly, would fail in court.

In the case of the photographs of the Duchess of York on holiday with a friend, the new law would almost certainly have prevented publication. The couple would in all likelihood have won damages for invasion of privacy - they successfully sued a French magazine on those grounds - or obtained an injunction forbidding publication in Britain.

(Photograph omitted)