Judges could strip newspapers of their traditional freedoms of speech if the press fails to regulate itself properly, the editor of The Guardian warned yesterday.
Alan Rusbridger issued a "wake-up call" to "complacent" fellow editors whom he accused of taking an "ostrich-like" view of levels of public confidence in the press.
Mr Rusbridger, giving evidence to a parliamentary committee investigating media intrusion, said people with complaints about press reports were increasingly taking cases to the courts because they did not regard the industry's self-regulating watchdog as credible. He said the result could be that judges developed a tort of privacy, which he said could be even more inhibiting to the press than privacy legislation introduced by the Government.
"Freedom of speech is such a fantastic cornerstone of our democracy. If we're going to make any laws that inhibit freedom of speech it's infinitely better that that's done in Parliament than on the hoof by judges – not that I would like to see that happen," he said.
He cited the Peck case, where CCTV pictures of a man attempting suicide were shown on television, leading to a ruling in the European Court of Human Rights that will limit the workings of the British media.
Mr Rusbridger also highlighted the case of the Radio 1 DJ Sara Cox, who went to the Press Complaints Commission after The People published pictures of her and her husband, Jon Carter, naked on their honeymoon. Ms Cox was persuaded by the PCC to accept a printed apology from the newspaper but was not satisfied and sued the paper. The editor of The Guardian said the existence of an ombudsman, to hear appeals against the PCC's findings, could have helped to resolve the dispute between the DJ and the newspaper by dealing with issues of fact.
The comments follow evidence to the same committee by Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, calling for reform of the PCC to make it more transparent.
Mr Kelner proposed the appointment of an ombudsman to act as an independent "court of appeal" on PCC decisions. His suggestion that the ombudsman could possibly be set up "under the umbrella" of the Government's communications watchdog, Ofcom, led to criticism from rival editors, who accused him of advocating statutory control of the press.
But yesterday, Mr Rusbridger, who also called for the commission to be reformed to make it "more proactive and tougher", suggested to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that some newspaper editors should be more concerned about the threat of privacy legislation. "It is very complacent to think that there is any kind of settled state of the law on privacy at the moment," he told the committee.
Earlier Piers Morgan, editor of The Daily Mirror, attacked "the old mythology of the ghastly tabloids" and accused MPs of using "emotive" language.
Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun, defended the record of the PCC in changing the culture of newsrooms since it was set up in 1991 and denounced as a "blatant lie" a suggestion that press standards had deteriorated in the past decade.