'Government will back PCC barring major press blunder'

Pinker: welcomed guidelines

MPs want a privacy law but the Government will continue backing the Press Complaints Commission as long as journalists do not make a drastic error of judgement, magazine editors were told at a privacy seminar.

Speaking at the launch of The PPA Privacy Handbook for magazine journalists, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker said: "MPs would like to bring in a privacy law, one that works and doesn’t impede on the needs of the press in a free society. It is, however, a political minefield.

"The Government is keen to leave this area to the PCC and it will remain so unless something drastic happens." He said the UK could move towards the US model of "personality rights". US celebrities can protect their name or image from being used to sell publications.

Baker was among key speakers to debate the question of whether there was now a standalone right to privacy and the eagerness of some celebrities to use new laws to restrict the media.

PCC Professor Robert Pinker, acting chairman of the PCC, said recent privacy cases showed that the Editors’  Code of Practice, which underpins the work of the commission, must be taken into account.

He said the Anna Ford case ruling stated that the PCC operated in "a field of activity to which the court could and should defer". The commission used common sense to make a discretionary interpretation of the Code of Practice, backed up by editors doing the same thing. "We are always trying to balance one set of legitimate rights against another," he said.

Pinker said there was no evidence that individuals were bypassing the PCC in favour of the courts, nor had a two-tier system developed, with celebrities going to court and ordinary people going to the PCC.

He said the guidelines in The PPA Privacy Handbook had been published at a very auspicious time and would improve the dialogue between the PCC as a non-statutory body and the legal profession and the courts. "Recent rulings have kept the PCC and the code in the driving seat and highlight the importance to editors of conforming to the code. The handbook will be an invaluable aid in the process," he said.

lTo order The PPA Privacy Handbook send an e-mail to Geraldir@cr-law.co.uk at solicitors Charles Russell.

By Ruth Addicott

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