MPs launch major review of legal issues facing the press

Parliament has announced it is to carry out a wide-ranging inquiry into the effectiveness of press self-regulation, contempt of court, privacy and libel laws.

The cross-party culture, media and sport select committee will begin the investigation in the New Year and has invited newspaper groups and other interested paries to submit evidence ahead of a series of hearings.

The group will look at the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission system following a series of libel payouts to the parents of missing British girl Madeleine McCann, their holiday friends “The Tapas Seven” and Robert Murat, the British expat named as a suspect by Portuguese police but subsequently cleared.

The committee said it was seeking views on whether the McCann case has exposed ‘a serious weakness in the self-regulatory regime”, and will ask ‘what changes news organisations themselves have made in the light of the case”.

In March, Express Newspapers paid substantial libel damages to Kate and Gerry McCann for publishing more than 100 defamatory stories about the couple. Robert Murat accepted £600,000 from Associated Newspapers, Express Newspapers, MGN and News Group Newspapers in July. This was followed last month by a £375,000 payout by Express Newspapers to the so-called ‘tapas seven”.

CFA under the spotlight

The select committee, chaired by John Whittingdale, has also invited opinions from the industry on the effect British libel law is having on reporting, and the impact of the ‘no-win no-fee’conditional fee agreement scheme for libel and privacy cases.

Journalists across the industry have expressed concerns over how CFAs have been used. Lawyers taking cases on a no-win, no-fee basis can charge a success fee equivalent to 100 per cent on top of their normal fee.

Although the CFAs were intended to help ordinary people gain access to justice there is concern at their frequent use by wealthy celebrities.

The effectiveness of contempt of court laws in an online age, and the impact of the European Convention of Human Rights on press freedom will also come under the spotlight.

The select committee said it would accept written submissions from interested parties until 14 January, after which a timetable of oral evidence sessions will be announced.

The committee is currently carrying out reviews into the BBC’s commercial activities, with both the BBC director general Mark Thompson and BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons called to give evidence this morning.

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