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Christopher Meyer: Newspapers should beware of wishing for a privacy law

Privacy has been much in the news lately because of a series of celebrity cases that have come before the courts. The Press Complaints Commisssion has just received a bunch of complaints from Heather Mills. Let's be clear about one thing. There will never be an absolutely definitive ruling either by the judges or by the PCC that draws a universally-applicable line between the private space and the public interest. Of course, the courts and the PCC make their decisions within the framework of their respective case law. But in the end it comes down to case by case; and a degree of subjectivity is unavoidable. That is why privacy cases, whether judged by the courts or the PCC, will be controversial till the end of time.

The Human Rights Act, of course, gets up the noses of a lot of people, and often rightly so. But it's a fact of life. It is the basis on which the courts rule when the principles of privacy collide with those of press freedom. Even if the Act were abolished tomorrow, there would remain a corpus of decisions based on it that would remain in force. That includes decisions made by judges which, taken together, have changed the legal landscape and are seen by some as tantamount to a privacy law. That too is a fact of life.

Every now and again you hear cries and whispers, not a million miles away from the newspaper and magazine industry, that perhaps, after all, a privacy law debated and passed by parliament would be preferable to decisions taken by "unelected" judges via the "back door". Well, beware of what you wish for. It may not be a full parliamentary debate; but the announcement last week of yet another hearing into privacy and related matters by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is the next best thing.

Some media lawyers will tell you that it is the courts which are making the running on privacy case law; and that the PCC is being shunted aside. Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? There is a minority of lawyers who resent the competition, as they see it, from a body that provides its services free and fast. But this is not a zero-sum game; there is a time for the law and a time for the PCC. And they ignore the sheer range of services we offer to those who fear unwarranted intrusion by the press.

From a speech by the chairman of the PCC in Manchester yesterday