Jowell rules out privacy law

Ministers have slammed the door on MPs’ demands for new privacy laws to curb “unwarranted” intrusion and harassment by newspapers.

The call came on Monday in the report from Gerald Kaufman’s media select committee but was immediately rejected by the Government.

The all-party committee said a law was needed to clarify the protection the public could expect from intrusion into their privacy, not just from the press, but from anyone.

It argued that a law passed by Parliament was better than one introduced piecemeal by judges as they ruled on cases brought before them under human rights legislation.

But Whitehall moved swiftly to reassure editors that Media Secretary Tessa Jowell stood by her view that the press should continue to regulate itself through the Press Complaints Commission under its recently appointed chairman Sir Christopher Meyer.

“We don’t consider a privacy law to be on the cards,” a spokesman for Jowell’s department said.

The call for the Government to reconsider its previous opposition to a privacy law was the main recommendation following the committee’s inquiry into media intrusion.

The MPs backed away from endorsing the call by Independent editor Simon Kelner and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger for appeals against PCC judgements to be heard by an ombudsman.

Tabloid editors, who defended the commission when they gave evidence, feared that, had the committee backed an ombudsman under media regulator Ofcom, that could have led to moves by peers to amend the communications bill, thereby threatening to bring in state regulation of the press through the back door.

Kaufman told Press Gazette: “We did not regard it as appropriate that a non-statutory organisation of self-regulation within the press should be made accountable to a statutory organisation. The Ofcom proposal is one that has been floating around but the select committee did not regard it as appropriate and we decided not to propose it.”

Instead the MPs called for the PCC to take a firmer line within the industry by doing the following:

Imposing fines or a “fixed scale of compensatory awards” on newspapers which seriously breached its code.
Naming and shaming the “worst offenders” by publishing a “league table” on judgements every year.
Requiring newspapers to include a “prominent reference” to PCC adjudications on their front pages.
Establishing a pre-publication team to handle issues of concern with editors to avoid any possibility of media harassment.
Investigating any illegal payments made to police officers.
Allowing journalists to refuse an assignment on the grounds that it breached the PCC Code of Practice.

“The PCC is slightly too ‘softly, softly’,” the committee said. “We realise the importance of preserving the confidence of the industry but the wholehearted support for the PCC expressed to us by editors persuades us that the commission has now got the capability, capacity and political capital to flex its muscles a bit.”

The MPs suggested that one responsibility of the pre-publication team was to take a more proactive approach to foreseeable events that herald intense media activity with people in grief and shock, and to act as soon as possible after unexpected disasters.

The committee also served notice on Meyer that it would invite him back in a year’s time so he could report on his own ideas to reform the PCC.

While the MPs backed Meyer’s plan to appoint lay members after inviting applications through advertisements in regional newspapers, they said the Editors’ Code Committee, which is now wholly made up of editors, should be re-established with a significant minority of lay members.

Ofcom, the PCC, the BBC and other broadcasters were also urged to step in to avoid intrusive “doorstepping” by camera crews and media scrums.

David Rose

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