Rights may not give protection against bus bore

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DOES an oversexed Cabinet minister have the right to keep his nocturnal activities secret? Does the victim of a road accident have the right to remain anonymous? And do bus passengers have the right to be left in peace by fellow travellers who would otherwise engage them in conversation?, writes Adam Sage.

These are among the questions which lie at the heart of the 52-page discussion document issued today by Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, and Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland.

The consultation paper starts by asserting that we have a right to privacy, which is defined as a combination of secrecy, anonymity and solitude. 'A society which permits individuals to choose how they lead their lives is one which will recognise the right to privacy,' it says.

'This encompasses not only seclusion from neighbours or the avoidance of publicity but freedom from unwarranted interference by the state.'

This is relatively straightforward. But the document then tries to establish how much privacy should be protected and in what circumstances. Here, the issues become 'highly complex', the Lord Chancellor acknowledges.

Although today's paper is published after a long debate about the press, it deals with broader issues and its recommendations will affect people far removed from the world of journalism. For instance, it suggests that a woman who is harassed by persistent telephone calls might be able to take action under the new law. And it asks whether someone disturbed by noisy neighbours might also be able to claim infringement of privacy. The document emphasises that no one in today's society can expect absolute privacy, noting: 'We accept that there will be gossip within limited circles of friends, neighbours and workplace.'

Similarly, a bus passenger might be annoyed at sitting next to a chatterbox, but could do nothing about it, except perhaps to get off at the next stop.

According to Lord Mackay, an ordinary person would need to suffer 'substantial distress' before being able to take action. It would be up to the courts to define such distress, but publication of the photograph of an accident victim might be considered sufficient grounds for a successful claim.

But what of that the Cabinet minister? If a newspaper acquired proof that he was having an affair with, say, an out-of-work Spanish actress, could it publish the details?

To do so, the editor would have to show that it was in the public interest and not simply that the public was interested in reading about it. The public interest is defined in the consultation paper as detection of crime or anti-social conduct; protection of public health and safety; or preventing the public from being misled.

Lawyers believe it would be hard to prove that exposing a minister's affair fell into any of these categories. In other words, the minister could sue.