Leading Article: Power and the press

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The Independent Online
THE Labour backbencher Clive Soley performed a public service when he established an informal committee of fellow Members and called a series of public hearings in advance of the second reading of his Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill. The central feature of this is a statutory body appointed, directly or indirectly, by the Home Secretary. It would have the power to force newspapers to correct factual inaccuracies. A newspaper that ignored an instruction from the new authority would be liable to unlimited penalties for contempt if the High Court upheld the ruling.

The hearings indicated that Mr Soley is proposing to use a clumsy and dangerous stick in an effort to crack a small, wizened nut. As Lord McGregor of Durris, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, told the committee: 'Direct intervention by a statutory body carries great risks of censorship.' Moreover, the pseudo-legal tribunal would have all the weaknesses of a court of law and none of its advantages. Its powers would be so great that those called before it would, reasonably, demand legal representation and insist on due process being followed.

The authority's search for truth would often prove futile, but would provide endless scope for pressure groups. A reference to, say, the circumstances in which the State of Israel was founded and large numbers of Arabs abandoned their homes would produce irresolvable complaints from Zionists and Palestinians. Yet in recent years newspapers have become far more willing to correct genuine errors of fact. Many (including the Independent) have appointed readers' representatives and given them freedom to investigate and adjudicate when reporters or editors do not automatically concede that they have made a mistake.

The issue that should concern MPs and the press is the complex question of privacy and the public interest. This is not always susceptible to legal intervention. For example, people are distressed when reporters pester the victims of grievous assaults or the relatives of those who have died or suffered injury in a disaster. Yet others are subjected to a form of siege by journalists camped outside their doors. But it is hard to see how the law could effectively outlaw such practices.

Next month Sir David Calcutt will deliver his second report on privacy. He could usefully start by addressing the extent to which the law has failed to keep up with technological advances that enable journalists - and anybody with the necessary equipment - to bug rooms and telephones, to pluck from the air conversations made on car phones or to snatch photographs from great distances. The activities of the electronic eavesdropper and the automated Peeping Tom should be severely restricted. But legislation controlling surreptitious surveillance should apply to everybody, not just journalists.

Members of the press should, however, be able to plead public interest in mitigation if brought before a court. It would then be for judge and jury to decide how much weight should be given to the claim. The leaking of information about the state of Norman Lamont's Access account was an invasion of privacy. The leaked news that public money had been used to meet part of the costs incurred in removing a dubious tenant from a flat in his house was in the public interest.