Leading Article: No special laws for the media

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THE Prime Minister has done well to reject the central recommendation of Sir David Calcutt's review of press self-regulation: that a statutory tribunal should stand in judgement on the press's implementation of a new code of conduct. If Sir David had his way, this tribunal would have draconian powers to restrain publication, to initiate inquiries even when no complaints had been lodged, to require apologies and corrections, to impose fines and award costs and compensation, and so on, in a menu of 19 items.

And yet Sir David, who comes across as a curious mixture of arrogance and naivety (or is it disingenuousness?), feels able to assert in conclusion that his recommendations are designed 'to enable the press to operate freely and responsibly . . . they are not designed to suppress free speech, or to stultify a vibrant and dynamic press'. He seems, furthermore, to have no inkling of the potential odiousness of a government-run tribunal. It would inevitably be used to extend state power, even if presided over, as recommended, by a judge: a member of a profession that is, by training and acquired instincts, inclined to uphold authority.

There is much to be said for further legislation to plug gaps in existing laws forbidding electronic eavesdropping, and to protect citizens from unwarranted intrusion on to their property by the media. The Government has in principle accepted his recommendation that these should be covered by three new criminal offences to curb physical intrusion. Here again his prejudice shows. Any such new legislation should cover not just the media, but physical or electronic trespass by anyone. It is scandalous, for example, that squatters can be evicted only via lengthy and expensive legal proceedings, rather than by being charged with a criminal offence and arrested: a gross violation of the principle that an Englishman's home is his castle.

Comprehensive legislation to ban electronic eavesdropping would have the beneficial side-effect of emphasising the unaccountability of the secret services, who are suspected of having recorded the now notorious conversations of both the Prince and Princess of Wales with their inamorati. To take just those cases: if the Calcutt recommendations become law, newspapers could be prosecuted for printing the fruits of electronic eavesdropping by agencies that are themselves beyond the law.

There must be grave doubts about the viability of the least precisely defined of Sir David's recommendations: that there should be a new tort (a civil wrong or injury attracting compensation or damages) covering infringements of privacy. No fewer than five government inquiries have looked in greater or lesser detail at the privacy issue. All have recommended against the sort of wide-ranging legislation envisaged by Sir David.

The Younger committee, which examined it in the greatest detail, concluded that privacy was virtually impossible to define. Would, for example, an intimate profile of a public figure amount to an infringement of privacy? Judges would no doubt be happy to prove Younger wrong, but that would involve using wide discretion, with the prospect of a gradual erosion of press freedom.

Where is the evidence that such a drastic step is needed? Overall, complaints to the Press Complaints Commission have been running at an average of 13 a week. A majority concern accuracy: privacy issues account for just 9 per cent. Sir David is unfair to the PCC, which is only 18 months old. He is astonished that self-regulation should involve an industry sitting in judgement on itself. Undeniably, newspapers periodically infringe the privacy of those who cannot defend themselves, with no justification other than the prurience of their readers. On just such delicate issues a more experienced and perhaps beefed-up PCC is well-placed to adjudicate.