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Minister's complaint puts press body to test

THE Press Complaints Commission, the body which was openly criticised by Sir David Calcutt's report on the press, faces a potentially crucial test from high profile complaints, including one from a government minister.

Jonathan Aitken, Minister for Defence Procurement, has lodged an official complaint about an article in the Observer last year, linking him with illegal arms exports to the Middle East. Mr Aitken is believed to have received clearance 'from the highest level' before complaining.

In a separate development, the editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, is believed to have lodged an offical complaint against his rival newspaper, the Daily Mirror. Mr MacKenzie, whose office declined to discuss the issue, is thought to have complained about coverage of the evidence he gave to the all-party Commons Select Committee on National Heritage on 21 January.

The cases will raise the profile of the Commission at a time when ministers are considering the Calcutt report's recommendations, and possible changes to the composition or powers of the Commission, chaired by Lord McGregor of Durris. Although the Commission hopes the Aitken complaint will be resolved successfully this month, ministers will be watching closely its handling of the case.

The test for the Commission comes as ministers appeared to be cooling towards some of Sir David's proposals. The Prime Minister has already indicated that he does not favour statutory regulation of the press, although ministers are pressing ahead with plans to outlaw bugging and tresspass.

While the prospect of introducing a privacy tort - also recommended by Sir David - is being investigated by the Lord Chancellor's department, senior ministers increasingly believe that it is not practical.

Doubts have been raised about the possibility of producing a new tort which could allow people of modest financial means a method of redress. With the cost of legal actions limiting those able to make use of the libel laws, ministers are anxious that any new law should not prove as restrictive. But the Government is also certain to rule out any scheme which would lead to a large increase in legal aid.

Last week, newspaper editors announced guidelines warning journalists not to use bugging devices or tap telephones, except in special cases in the public interest.

The editors added an anti-bugging clause to the profession's voluntary code of practice, defining public interest as detecting or exposing crime, serious misdemeanor or seriously anti-social conduct, as well as protecting public health and safety and preventing the public from being misled 'by some statement or action of an individual or organisation'.