Wakeham says privacy law would be villains' charter

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The Independent Online
Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, has condemned government measures to protect privacy as a "villains' charter" which threatens freedom and protects only the rich and powerful, writes Stephen Castle.

His intervention is the first direct clash between ministers and the press regulator since the general election. It will reawaken the bitter political argument over privacy and press intrusion which exploded in the wake of Diana, Princess of Wales's death.

Lord Wakeham said an article of a government Bill to be debated in the House of Lords tomorrow could end up undermining one of the most precious freedoms of the British people: "to investigate, report, and comment on, matters in the public interest".

Critics of the legislation are worried about article 8 which gives "everyone the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence". Lord Wakeham argues that under this article "public interest, or, more importantly, truth, would be no absolute justification. The courts might therefore become the arbiters of what newspapers print or television broadcasts".

Supporters of Lord Wakeham's view argue that the Bill, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, would prevent investigations by newspapers against the rich, the powerful, and the Royal Family.

One source said that, had the provision been in place, newspapers could have been prevented from publishing crucial evidence against the disgraced former Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, including details of his hotel bill. The Royal Family might also take advantage of new opportunities to injunct the press which would not have a public-interest defence.

Lord Wakeham said press targets were often "people of influence and responsibility in the state". Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he rejects the case for a privacy law, arguing that "it would be used mercilessly by those who had everything to hide. It would be a villains' charter".