This Back Door Privacy Law Is a Threat to All Our Freedoms; THE PRESS WATCHDOG ON THE EUROPEAN RULES THAT IMPERIL EVERY BRITON'S RIGHT TO KNOW

Article excerpt

Byline: LORD WAKEHAM

By Lord Wakeham Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission OVER the past quarter of a century, Parliament and successive governments have often looked at whether a law needed to be passed to protect privacy.

For good reason, their conclusion has always been the same: a privacy law is neither necessary nor desirable.

It is unnecessary because there are already many safeguards against intrusion into the private lives of the individual - not least the Press Complaints Commission.

Since 1991 the PCC has upheld a tough Code of Practice which deals with privacy and censures newspapers which have intruded without proper justification into somebody's private life.

And it is undesirable because

in reality it would not be a law available to ordinary members of the public - only the very rich and those with something to cover up.

While a privacy law might be established to protect those in the public eye with nothing to hide, it would be used mercilessly by those who had everything to hide.

It would be a villains' charter.

This Government agrees with the view Parliament has always taken.

Tony Blair has made absolutely clear on a number of occasions that he wants to see tough self regulation by the Press working, and that he opposes privacy laws.

A So far, so good. But all is not as straightforward as it seems.

In its Election manifesto, Labour said it would incorporate into United Kingdom law the terms of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Tomorrow, this Bill will start its passage in Parliament.

The principles in the Convention were drafted in the wake of the Second World War when freedom for the peoples of Europe was a delicate flower which needed nurturing. The Convention sought to provide that.

S A consultation document on the Convention, produced by Jack Straw before the last Election, rightly said: 'We take the view that the central purpose of the Convention is to protect the individual against misuse of power by the State. It imposes obligations on states, not individuals.' Strengthening the rights of the individual against the power of the State is good for democracy. That is why I have a great deal of sympathy for the Convention.

In particular, I welcome the incorporation of Article 10 on freedom of expression. I also applaud the way the Government's Bill has limited its scope purely to public bodies, in the spirit of the Convention.

But there is much potential danger in the Convention, too.

Article 8 contains an absolute right to 'respect for privacy' without any specific defence of public interest. That is a right which, if misinterpreted, could end up undermining one of the most precious freedoms of the British people - the freedom of the Press to investigate, report and comment on matters in the public interest.

Its targets are often, and rightly, people of influence and responsibility in the State.

Indeed, it would be the supreme irony if a Bill intended to strengthen the power of individuals against the State in fact strengthened the power of the State over its citizens.

This could happen because I have no doubt that there will be some lawyers who will try to use this Article to create a common law of I privacy through the back door, against the wishes of Parliament and the intention of the Government. …