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The debate on freedom of expression: Gilmour supports privacy curbs on 'arrogant' press: Peer backs Calcutt report

A RIGHT to freedom from press intrusion is at least as important as freedom of the press, Lord Gilmour, the former Conservative Cabinet minister and Spectator editor, said in a fierce defence of the Calcutt Report last night.

Lord Gilmour told the annual awards ceremony of the Council for Freedom of Information, held in the City of London, that the Thatcher government had vandalised the best television in the world and pandered to the world's worst newspapers.

It had relegated national interest behind party and personal advantage in its dealings with the media, which had led to the intimidation, if not emasculation, of British television, while sleazy tabloids had been allowed to dive 'even deeper into the mire'.

He went on: 'There was no mystery about all this. The great majority of the press, especially the tabloid press, were servile supporters of the Government, whereas television was deemed insufficiently slavish.

'So, while to the press the Government practised the politics of reward - lavish rewards, to television the Government practised the politics of revenge.

'The result, then, of the Thatcher governments was to vandalise the best television in the world, and pander to the worst newspapers in the world, which performed the seemingly impossible feat of achieving even lower standards than before . . .

'The same editors and journalists who were poodles to Lady Thatcher for 10 years now solemnly assert that any measures that are brought in to civilise the press will turn it into poodles of the Government.

'Papers which toadied to a right-wing government for a decade cannot convincingly now pretend that they are really underdogs at heart.'

Urging support for Sir David Calcutt's recommendations for a privacy law and bans on trespass and telephone interception, Lord Gilmour, a former editor of the Spectator, said he would also back a statutory tribunal with powers to compel publication of adjudications and corrections. But he said new curbs should be balanced by new freedoms: a statutory right of access to official information and a relaxation of libel law.

A Freedom of Information Act would improve democracy. 'But it would, of course, also help the serious segment of the press which is greatly hampered by the pervasive secrecy of British government, and it might even encourage the inferior section to pay greater attention to public issues than to private tittle-tattle.'

He continued: 'The case for government action over the press is almost as strong now as it was when in the 1980s Lady Thatcher acted to civilise the trade unions; and indeed the arrogance of the tabloids is very reminiscent of that of the trade union barons in the 1960s and 1970s.

'Sir David Calcutt's recommendation of a statutory commission in his report, which is an excellent one - though you would never guess it from reading even the reputable papers - has excited howls of rage from all sections of the press.

'It has been presented as the first step towards censorship and totalitarianism.

'This is like those who claim that the legislation of in vitro fertilisation will lead straight to Hitler's gas chambers.

'Unquestionably, a fettered press would be an evil. But nobody, least of all Sir David, is seeking such a thing; and an unregulated press that allows any amount of journalistic misconduct, while customarily being sycophantic to the Government, can be almost as bad as a controlled one . . .

'The moral McCarthyism of the tabloid papers, their insensate desire to prise open - or invent - the secrets of people's private lives has to be checked.'