Newspapers' voluntary code bans bugging

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The Independent Online
NEWSPAPERS are barred from bugging or intercepting private telephone conversations under a clause added yesterday to the industry's voluntary code of practice, policed by the Press Complaints Commission. The aim is to pre-empt legislation such as that proposed by Sir David Calcutt in his report to the Government last month.

The new clause states: 'Unless justified by public interest, journalists should not obtain or publish material obtained by using clandestine listening devices or by intercepting private telephone conversations.'

The definition of 'public interest' is the same as that applied in other clauses of the code: detecting or exposing serious crime or misdemeanour or anti-social conduct; protecting public health and safety and 'preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation'.

The fuss over eavesdropping stemmed from three of last year's scandals - the David Mellor affair and the embarrassing conversations that the Prince and Princess of Wales had with third parties. Talks between Mr Mellor, the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, with Antonia da Sancha, were bugged, while the other discussions were tapped by scanning devices.

The clause was announced by the code of practice committee, which consists of members of the PCC under Patricia Chapman, editor of the News of the World. She said that even if the clause had existed last year, newspapers covering the royal conversations would have been able to use the public interest defence.

She admitted, though, that it would have prevented her newspaper's coverage of Pamella Bordes, a House of Commons researcher. A News of the World reporter, wired for sound, offered her money for sex, and her recorded acceptance made it safe to publish the story. 'Newspapers have cleaned up their act a great deal in the last two or three years,' Ms Chapman said.

The committee has discussed a clause barring the use of long-lens cameras to photograph people on private property without permission. Ms Chapman said this presented legal difficulties - such as the position of people included in the picture by mistake - and the proposed text is being circulated to editors for comment. She said the existing clause on privacy would cover many cases of photographic intrusion.