Minister prepares to curb press curbs

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The Independent Online
Legislation to curb intrusion of privacy by the press is being revived by Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, despite earlier indications that it had been shelved.

Mr Dorrell is planning to circulate a paper to the Cabinet on proposed changes to the privacy laws early in the new year. He has privately told colleagues the Government remains committed to introducing new criminal laws to make it an offence for the media to invade privacy by using bugging devices or long-range cameras, as recommended in the Calcutt report two years ago.

The new criminal offences could be included in legislation in the 1995-96 session of Parliament, if he wins Cabinet approval. The Government had been preparing to act, when it was hit by a series of scandals in 1994. Ministers feared the legislation would have been seen as revenge on the press, and it was thought to have been shelved.

But Mr Dorrell is planning to see whether there is support within the Cabinet for action on the press. Although it is certain to prove controversial, ministers believe they will have public support.

The Government has rejected the recommendation by Sir David Calcutt for a statutory press tribunal. Mr Dorrell has made it clear the appointment of a former Cabinet minister, Lord Wakeham, to head the Press Complaints Commission, has not ended the need for further action.

His paper to the Cabinet will deal with the more difficult issue raised in the Calcutt report of a new tort of infringement of privacy.Insiders say ministers are still struggling with the problem of defining an infringement of privacy.

It is expected that Mr Dorrell will find a consensus for action to give ordinary people a civil remedy for libel, which they are denied at the moment because of the cost of libel litigation in the High Court.

The Lord Chancellor is keen to resolve the problem by creating new small claims courts to deal with minor libel actions, quickly and cheaply.

John Major, who has also been involved in libel action, is keen to see progress on reform of the press and privacy laws for ordinary people, fulfilling a commitment in the 1992 manifesto.

The threat of action against the press has continued since David Mellor, another former Heritage minister, warned that it was "drinking in the last chance saloon".