Letter: Press regulation: a Bill killed, tragic revelations, the global village, sellers of sleaze

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The Independent Online
Sir: The privacy Bill I introduced in the House of Commons in 1988 received overwhelming support from MPs of all parties and was discussed in detail for three days in committee. It was then killed by the Government although the cabinet committee on the Bill had previously voted 9 to 2 in its favour. The two dissenting votes of those ministers, ultimately responsible for enactment and operation, reflected a certain fear of being 'picked off' individually by the press.

The fact is that our ministers are afraid to introduce a privacy Bill to protect the basic human rights of the individual to privacy. Looking at the parliamentary demise of those MPs who have introduced such Bills and to the ministerial resignation of David Mellor, who threatened a Bill, may illustrate a justifiable fear by ministers of a press that can bring about the political downfall of anyone who annoys it or threatens its vast earnings.

Parts of the press make not just millions but hundreds of millions of pounds a year from privacy invasion. It is this financial threat that motivates the tough defence of their freedom before the law to bully, destroy and to blackmail any targeted individual.

The allegation that a privacy law would prevent legitimate press investigation of crime is also false. My Bill protected the rights to investigate. What it prevented was only the publication of well- defined private material. Where there was doubt, my Bill urged publication.

Despite obvious grassroots concern over privacy invasion, some newspaper proprietors argue that their readers want to read such stories. No one doubts that private, non-criminal tittle-tattle is of great interest to the public, hence the vast earnings. But is such publication in the long-term public interest? I and most MPs, including most ministers, speaking privately, think not.

The evidence is overwhelming that the protection of a privacy law is now urgently needed. The Calcutt Report goes some way towards protecting the individual but, unlike a privacy law, the issues are likely to be vague and the witnesses and tribunal members more subject to media pressure. In practice, I am sure it will prove beneficial in the short term but ineffective beyond that.

In earlier days, our monarchs needed the public support of the Church to ensure public support, for example over matters such as rule by divine right. Today, governments need the support of the press, as in the general election of 1992. Other recent examples, such as the poll tax and privacy legislation, illustrate vividly the power of the press to influence the policies of elected politicians.

We have a government afraid of the media, so afraid that it refuses to offer the public the legal protection it seeks. The Government should take courage and act in the public interest, or at least allow a private member to pass a privacy Bill.

Yours faithfully,

JOHN BROWNE

London, SW1

15 January

The writer was formerly MP (Conservative) for Winchester, 1979-92.

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