Leading Article: Steps towards censorship

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The prospect of a press that exposes guilty public figures but does not sully the innocent private citizen or personal lives is tempting. Its appeal has produced some popular backing for restrictive laws and demands that the press clean up its act.

In this vein, a group of MPs yesterday defended its proposals for tougher regulation plus several laws banning harassment and certain forms of surveillance. The quid pro quo for journalists would be a freedom of information Act and indemnity from privacy laws if they showed they had acted in the public interest. The House of Commons National Heritage Committee would seem to have achieved a neat combination. These proposals may appeal to a government that is not prepared to tolerate the status quo but is keen to win cross-party support for any clampdown.

The package does not, however, stand the test of close examination. What emerges is a disingenuous ragbag which would give the government of the day unprecedented powers over the press. This is not the time, as the Conservatives approach their 14th year of continuous power, so to undermine the Fourth Estate.

Two recommendations reinforce suspicions that these proposals, far from balancing restriction and freedom, would amount to censorship. First, the most vague and poorly argued element in the report is for improved rights of access to information. The Government would need persuading to enact such legislation, having long avoided action. If the MPs are serious and not merely throwing a sop to libertarians they must provide more specific demands.

Second, the MPs set great store by journalists being able to plead that they acted in the public interest when breaking proposed privacy laws. This faith is naive. The British courts have never been sympathetic to such a defence: witness the trial of Clive Ponting, who used a public-interest defence in a case brought against him by the government under the Official Secrets Act. He was acquitted by a jury that ignored the judge's directions.

At the heart of the committee's report is a call for a beefed-up self-regulatory body, known as the Press Commission. It would invigilate journalists, investigate complaints and impose fines and compensation for injured parties. Along with a recommendation that legal aid should be available in libel cases, this would give ordinary people a real chance to gain satisfaction when abused.

The commission would also play an enhanced role as defender, and not just controller, of the press, becoming involved in training. Journalists would have to accept a code of conduct as a condition of employment.

The revamping of this regulatory body is a sensible proposal, highlighting the weakness and narrow brief of the existing Press Complaints Commission. But the National Heritage Committee has gone further, suggesting a statutory ombudsman appointed by the Lord Chancellor. At last the Government would have its man at the helm.

This is a watered-down version of Sir David Calcutt's proposal that a government-run statutory tribunal should sit in judgement on implementation of the code of conduct. The Government wisely rejected this Draconian measure. It should similarly reject imposing the Lord Chancellor's creature. An empowered and energised Press Commission should be given a chance to right the wrongs of the public without imperilling freedom of speech.