Justice secretary Jack Straw has said newspapers should be free to judge for themselves whether the subject of a story should be approached for a response before publication.
Straw told the culture, media and sport select committee’s investigation into press standards today that he felt the current system of prior notification was “not broke” and said he was “sceptical” about making it a legal requirement.
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The News of the World did not approach motorsport boss Max Mosley before running its “orgy” story last April because it feared it would be hit with an eleventh-hour injunction.
Mosley told an earlier select committee meeting that he believed it should be a legal requirement for newspapers to approach people for a response prior to publication.
“I’m very sceptical about going down that route,” Straw told MPs this afternoon.
Straw said he was glad that the Daily Telegraph gave him the right to respond to allegations about his expenses, because it allowed him to point out an error which was then corrected before publication.
“Whatever anyone else thinks of the press, they have the same interest to ensure accuracy,” he said.
“Sometimes they leave it a bit late but they do inform the person about whom they’re going to write with sufficient time, normally, just.”
He gave the hypothetical example of a story where the subject was a dangerous criminal and approaching them beforehand might put a witness at risk.
“If they [newspapers] had a good legal advice, satisified themselves that what they were doing was in the public interest, then I think they should be entitled to publish and it should be their judgement,” he said.
“My sense is this current practice by the press is not broke and I think that the prescription could be worse than the problem.”
Speaking to the committee in March, Mosley described the tabloid press as “disgusting”.
Straw said today: “I buy – not out of expenses – tabloids on a Sunday. I’m sorry to say, if apologies are needed, that I’m sometimes entertained by them.
“None of us want to see our private lives gratuitously spilled over into the papers. That’s an area where I do feel very sorry for people.”
But he said it was up to the newspaper industry to set a better standard for itself rather than a matter that required legislation.
Straw was asked if he had considered putting the Reynolds defence of responsible journalism into statute. He said the system seemed to work well enough in its current form.
“In the conversations I’ve had with media organisations, they have not said to me as I recall that there is a problem with the Reynolds defence,” he told the committee.
“What they keep saying to me, especially the regional newspapers and the less well-financed national newspapers, they’ve just a problem about being at risk in respect of CFAs [conditional fee agreements]. That’s the real problem.”
Straw also said he was not convinced how big a problem “libel tourism” was – where foreign nationals sue other foreign nationals in a British court.
“I’ve not seen sufficient evidence myself at the moment to suggest that there is a major problem here,” he told MPs. “But I await your committee’s response on this because you’ll have the evidence.”
The Ministry of Justice is close to publishing a consultation paper on libel and the internet which will look at the issue of newspaper archives being sued years after first publication.
Straw said the issue was particularly close to the department’s heart because it is facing the same problems with its online court records database – a publicly accessible and searchable list of magistrates’ court rulings.