MPs seek watchdog and ombudsman for press: Commission with right to fine newspapers urged

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The press should create a powerful lay-dominated commission to fine newspapers, order corrections and award compensation, while a government-appointed ombudsman with similar powers should act as a final court of appeal, the Commons National Heritage Select Committee urged yesterday.

But the committee insisted that the suggested punishments for serious breaches of an improved code of practice - and new criminal and civil laws to protect privacy, which it also backs subject to 'public interest' defences - must be balanced by greater public access to official information.

Such a package could well have banned publication of the 'Squidgy' and 'Camillagate' tapes, Daily Mirror photographs of a topless Duchess of York, and revelations about Norman Lamont's unpaid Access bill.

Defending accusations that the fining and privacy recommendations amounted to Draconian curbs on press freedom, Gerald Kaufman, the Labour chairman, said the three- pronged package had to be implemented as a whole.

The committee's report, which it said was geared to protecting the privacy and rights of ordinary people, calls for the abolition of the industry's current self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission.

The creation of a beefed-up Press Commission to handle complaints, with a statutory ombudsman as the long-stop for cases unresolved at the lower level, might prove attractive to the Government; it has all but ruled out the statutory tribunal recommended by Sir David Calcutt QC in his review of press self-regulation but has also dismissed the Press Complaints Commission as ineffective.

Unanimity on the cross-party committee for freedom of information to be the quid pro quo for more controls is an achievement. But chances of Government agreement are remote. While William Waldegrave, the Cabinet minister responsible for open government, has promised a White Paper on that subject in the summer, the Government yesterday poured cold water on the idea of a freedom of information Act.

The new commission should hear third-party complaints, open a telephone hotline and regional offices, initiate its own investigations and monitor the press, the report says. It should also have the power to order publication with due prominence of its adjudications over factual errors or breaches of the code, together with corrections and appropriate apologies. But it should be under an equally clear duty to uphold press freedom. Reporters should carry copies of the code of practice, which should include the principle that everyone is entitled to a 'zone of privacy' - respect for his or her private life. Compliance with the code should be a condition of employment.

Other changes to the current code should include a ban on identifying sex assault victims or enabling 'jigsaw' identifications, even in cases where the law allowed it.

The newspaper industry would have to set up the new commission, fund it and decide on issues such as maximum fines and compensation. Clive Soley, Labour MP for Hammersmith and sponsor of the Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill now going through the Commons, said setting fines too high could drive small publications out of business.

Mr Kaufman insisted yesterday that the press would be making a mistake if it refused to co-operate. But Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, denounced the recommendations as a 'busybodies' charter'.

The suggested powers of the Press Commission might meet the concerns of John Major, however. He is reluctant to impose a panoply of laws on the press. But the notion of a government-appointed ombudsman was strongly attacked by the Guild of Editors. 'That comes within a hair's breadth of statutory control,' Keith Parker, chairman of the parliamentary and legal committee, said.

Privacy and Media Intrusion; HMSO; pounds 12.15.

(Photograph omitted)

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