Leading Article: Privacy and the public interest

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN a sermon yesterday at St Paul's Cathedral, Canon Michael Saward condemned as 'grotesque and obscene' the manner in which parts of the media had covered the break-up of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Three days earlier the canon's daughter, Jill, had described to a committee of MPs the cruelly insensitive manner in which she had been harassed, and her privacy had been invaded, by reporters and photographers in the days after her savage rape in 1986. Both David Mellor and Norman Lamont believe that their privacy has been invaded in recent months and that they have been unfairly held up to ridicule by the press.

Next month Sir David Calcutt, QC, will deliver his second report on privacy and the press. The committee should build on the recommendations in his initial report of June 1990. Members proposed the creation of a new criminal offence of physical intrusion - entering private property without permission to obtain personal information. Eavesdropping, listening at keyholes and peering through windows have long been considered disreputable. What has happened in recent decades is that modern technology has made surreptitious surveillance far easier and more effective. The law has not kept up with these advances. It should be unambiguously illegal to plant concealed microphones, tap telephones, pluck calls from the ether, or use long-range cameras in situations in which the victims could reasonably expect to be safe from intrusion.

Moreover, it should become a clear offence for reporters or photographers to harass or besiege people such as Ms Saward, or, say, the relatives of those who died in the Hillsborough disaster. Those who claim that it would be impossible to outlaw such behaviour should remember the success with which the law has dealt with attempts by strikers to beset 'blacklegs' or to picket their homes.

These examples cover a wide variety of cases and demonstrate that it would not always be easy to define public interest. Clearly, Ms Saward, who was not a public figure, was hounded in an indefensible manner at a time of great distress. The heir to the throne and his wife, however, are public figures. The use of secretly taped telephone conversations was intolerable. But it would not have been right to forbid reports concerning the state of their marriage.

The reporting of Mr Mellor's affair was intrusive, technologically as well as ethically. But what forced his resignation was the revelation that he had accepted hospitality and airline tickets from a friend whose father was a leading official of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, in apparent breach of Cabinet Office procedures. Similarly, it was an invasion of Mr Lamont's privacy to report that he had, without any announcement, been given public money to meet part of the cost involved in a legal action to remove a dubious tenant from a flat in his house. Yet there was a public interest in the disclosure.

For legislation to be acceptable, it would have to be simple, precise and should enable an editor to plead that an investigation was in the public interest and not merely of interest to the public. Successive governments have been unwilling to grant to the media a public interest defence. It would, however, be a reasonable, indeed necessary, concession if there are to be new restraints on the press.