Ancient rules could be enacted to fine hackers

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Journalists who hacked the telephones of MPs could face fines for being in contempt of Parliament under proposals by a House of Commons inquiry which reported yesterday. The Standards and Privileges Committee ruled that hacking could be regarded as an infringement of the traditional rights of MPs. Its investigation was prompted by allegations that the News of the World hacked the phones of several MPs.

The committee said it would be better for allegations of hacking to be resolved by the courts but, if that did not happen, MPs could take action under ancient parliamentary rules. The power to impose a financial penalty on the public has not been invoked since 1666, when Thomas White was fined £1,000 (about £114,000 in today's money).

White absconded after being ordered into the custody of the Serjeant at Arms, for causing Henry Chowne, the MP for Horsham, to be arrested and prevented from attending Parliament. Some experts regard the power to fine as having lapsed. But the committee said it should be formally revived when a new Privileges Bill is brought forward later this year.

Another option, it said, would be for reporters or editors to be summoned to the Bar of the House inside the Commons chamber for a formal reprimand. This was last used in 1957, when Sir John Junor, editor-in-chief of the Sunday Express, apologised for suggesting MPs were evading petrol rationing after the Suez crisis.

But the committee conceded this might be viewed as "high-handed" and said: "The imposition of a fine is more consistent with modern practice."