Mackay urges voluntary damages plan for press

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A COMPROMISE curb on press excesses, with newspapers volunteering to pay damages when they were in breach of a code of conduct, was proposed by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, last night.

The voluntary system of redress was suggested in evidence to the Commons National Heritage Committee, which is investigating 'privacy and media intrusion'.

The Government has already rejected the proposal of Sir David Calcutt QC, in last month's Review of Press Self-Regulation, that the voluntary Press Complaints Commission should be replaced by a statutory tribunal with powers to enforce publication of adjudications, award compensation, impose fines and award costs.

In an exchange with Joe Ashton, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, the Lord Chancellor said that the appointment of an independent ombdusman could be 'a very good method' of dealing with small claims against the press, but he added: 'The ombudsman would have to be a person of sufficient status to command respect.'

Gerald Kaufman, the committee's Labour chairman, described the idea as 'an extremely novel and inventive one' - but a note of caution was injected by John Gorst, Conservative MP for Hendon North, who hinted the Sun's reaction would be the big test.

'If you have a section of the press that has contempt for Members of Parliament, for the judiciary, and for its own peers within the press, and expresses itself very forcibly, both in its conduct and in its editorial views, what chance do you think there is of a voluntary ombudsman having any effect, probably in the only place that it is needed?'

Lord Mackay conceded that there was 'a very considerable problem to be overcome in making a feasible proposal'.

As for compensation for people suffering from press code infringements, Lord Mackay told Paul Channon, the former Conservative Cabinet minister: 'I would have thought that, at any rate for a start, it would be sufficient to make it obligatory that his findings would be published . . .

'And then, if he made a finding of X pounds of damages, it wouldn't necessarily be formally binding, but unless a newspaper . . . had a good reason for not paying, if it published the result of the ombudsman's finding, there would be a fair degree of practical pressure for payment, and that might be quite a good, reasonably voluntary way forward.'

(Photograph omitted)