The Royal Separation: MPs want curbs on intrusions by the press

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CHANGES in the law to curb invasions of privacy by the press are expected to be urged on the Government by MPs after the crisis over the royal marriage.

Editors told the cross-party Commons Select Committee on National Heritage that coverage of the marriage difficulties had been in 'the public interest'.

But there is growing support among MPs on all sides of the Commons for legislative measures to curb the invasion of privacy of ordinary members of the public.

Measures favoured include controls to stop the press besieging the homes or hideaways of those in the news, with a ban on the sale or publication of bugged conversations and intrusive long-range photographs.

James Bishop, chairman of the Association of British Editors, said opinion polls showed most people believed it was right to expose 'personal hypocrisy among politicians or in the Royal Family'. He urged the committee to 'leave well alone' and allow newspapers more time for the voluntary code of practice to work. But a consensus appears to be forming on the committee for limited government action.

The committee has been appalled by the evidence from the widows of two IRA victims, who described in camera how they were besieged by photographers at their homes and at a cemetery. One was asked to pose for photographs and 'show grief'.

The view that action was needed was reinforced yesterday by Jill Saward, the victim of a rape, who described her own ordeal by the press, after her highly- publicised attack by raiders on a west London vicarage, where her father was the vicar.

Some members would support a statutory code of practice, but that would provoke a split among the Labour MPs, who are anxious to protect the freedom of the press.

The pressure for curbs will also come from the evidence collected by a separate committee considering a backbench Bill by Clive Soley, a Labour MP, to enforce accuracy by the press. He has tried to avoid his Bill becoming embroiled in the issue of privacy and invasion by the press. But one senior member of the committee said: 'The evidence we are hearing is really appalling.'

The committee on Mr Soley's Bill, due for a Second Reading in the Commons on 29 January, has interviewed some of the same witnesses as the select committee.

The Prime Minister's office said the Government was awaiting the report of the Calcutt inquiry into privacy and the press which is due next month. Some senior Cabinet ministers believe the press 'hounding' of David Mellor, who was forced to resign his Cabinet post over his affair with an actress, will make it more difficult to act because it may be seen by the public as an attempt to protect ministers from legitimate criticism by the press. Ministers believe that view was increased by the controversy over Norman Lamont's wine bill and the use of public funds to pay for legal costs over press reports when his home was let inadvertently to a sex therapist.

The disclosures about the Prince and Princess of Wales may also inhibit action. 'It now looks as though it was all justified. There's a feeling of 'Gotcha]' one MP said. However, there is increasing support for action to preserve the privacy of ordinary people which the Government may be unable to resist.

Victim's call for press curb, page 6

(Photographs omitted)