Editors force Press Bill concession: The Soley Bill to curb newspaper excesses will be amended to guarantee freedom of expression, if it progresses in the Commons. Patricia Wynn Davies reports

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Indy Politics
The backbench bill that would force newspaper editors to correct inaccurate reports will be amended to include a freedom of expression guarantee if it clears its Commons Second Reading next month.

Clive Soley, its sponsor, conceded the need for change after editors and the Press Complaints Commission voiced strong objections during questioning by a cross-party committee collecting information for the measure.

The Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill would put editors under a legal duty to correct factual inaccuracies, and create a statutory, publicly funded and lay-dominated Independent Press Authority with power to adjudicate over corrections and, if necessary, take cases to the courts.

The Bill is backed by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, the freedom of expression pressure group. But Mr Soley, Labour MP for Hammersmith, said after the hearing that he had already asked the Bar Council, the barristers' professional body, for advice on the insertion of a provision equivalent to the freedom of expression guarantee in article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Accepting the need for change on the question of appointments to the proposed authority, Mr Soley said the Home Secretary or Secretary of State for National Heritage could set up an independent committee to select members. Alternatively, the National Heritage Select Committee could be given the power to veto government appointees.

The concessions came after the Conservative-dominated committee heard evidence from Donald Trelford, editor of the Observer, Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian, and Malcolm Rutherford, assistant editor of the Financial Times.

Mr Trelford said: 'I think it would be very undesirable for people appointed by the Government to decide what is truth.'

Lord McGregor of Durris, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, told the committee: 'Direct intervention by a statutory body carries great risks of censorship.'

The press authority envisaged by the Bill would effectively sideline the commission, which was set up following Sir David Calcutt's first report on press self- regulation in June 1990. The Calcutt committee's other main recommendation was for new criminal offences to outlaw physical intrusions such as bugging, photographing or taping individuals on private property. Taking a view bordering on the heretical in the eyes of some editors, Mr Trelford suggested there was a case for a stronger lay element in the commission, possibly even a majority. He also told Mr Soley that incorporation of article 10, a Freedom of Information Act and new rules on newspaper ownership would mean 'we could look at it with a fresh eye'.

The only concession to change contemplated by Lord McGregor was outlawing bugging and the use of telephoto lenses, under the civil, not criminal, law. That, moreover, should be applied to all, not just journalists.

A lay commission member, Robert Pinker, professor of social work studies at the London School of Economics, said: 'What worries me is that the licence or mandate to require accuracy would extend into the delicate area of political life.' On the vexed issue of the commission's reluctance to entertain third-party complaints, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, another lay member of the commission, said they were impractical if the subject of the story did not agree to give evidence. Mr Soley's Bill insists on third-party rights on the footing that the public is entitled to receive accurate news, not misformation or disinformation.

The protestations of the industry will not cut much ice with MPs, many of whom are expected to support the Bill while agitating even more strongly for curbs to stop 'rat packs' besieging people at their homes or at cemeteries, and intrusions into personal privacy by the use of bugging and long-range photography.

The Government's response to MPs' demands will be conditioned by Sir David's second report into self-regulation, which is expected soon after the Second Reading of Mr Soley's Bill.

It may also have to contend with recommendations for limited action to protect the private lives of ordinary people, made by the Commons Select Committee, on National Heritage, which is investigating privacy and media intrusion. Yesterday, it heard that the family of Leslie Crowther suffered 'substantial distress' because of continual unrequested media attention after the entertainer was seriously injured in a car crash.

Patrick Shervington, director of the Lord's Taverners charitable celebrity cricket team and the family's spokesman since the accident, criticised approaches from the Mail on Sunday, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times. But he praised the Daily Mirror and the News of the World for agreeing not to pursue the family, and accepted that in many cases self-regulation could work.