Letter: Press laws: right of reply, leaked reports, the 'Beano' and tame poodles

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Sir: Since the leaking of Sir David Calcutt's recommendations this week, public discussion has centred mainly on press intrusion into privacy. The far more important issue is the right of reply to false newspaper reports, featured in his earlier proposals.

It is unjust that an individual or organisation should suffer tragic consequences because a newspaper refuses to print an adequate correction of an untrue story. The only way to secure its publication at present is by an expensive libel suit, for which free legal aid is not available. To remedy this is the aim of Clive Soley's Private Member's Bill, due to be given a second reading on 29 January. This is a better measure than the one I attempted to introduce in three successive years. When I met the responsible minister, he told me privately that it was highly improbable that Conservative MPs would support it. And who was the minister? None other than the very well known David Mellor.

Andreas Whittam Smith, editor of the Independent, is reported on 11 January as saying that a statutory body would be 'extremely bad news'. This, if accepted by Parliament, would mean leaving the situation as it is.

Since the report of the first Royal Commission on the Press in 1947, we have been told ad nauseam that if the newspapers did not reform by self-regulation, action by Westminster would be required. Well, it hasn't taken place and the behaviour of certain national journals has worsened. After a refusal to correct, and confirmation of the request by the authority, only a statutory body could impose a fine.

The other objection which will undoubtedly be heard is that the Bill is impracticable. The fact is that this kind of law has been in operation for decades in Canada, West Germany, France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Greece, Belgium and Austria. It should be applied here.

Unfortunately the right of reply is no panacea. 'Freedom of the press' will remain a myth so long as five powerful groups own and control nine out of every ten national newspapers sold in Britain today.

Yours sincerely,



11 January