Guess Whose Privacy Will Be Protected

Article excerpt

Byline: STEPHEN GLOVER

DOES THIS country need a privacy law? Yes, says the Labourdominated House of Commons Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee. It is by far the most controversial recommendation in an otherwise generally temperate report published yesterday.

Just why the committee should think such a law is necessary is a bit difficult to fathom bearing in mind its judgment that ' overall, standards of Press behaviour . . . have improved over the past decade'. It also accepts that the performance of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) - the self-regulatory body which oversees newspapers - has got better over the same period.

The justification the committee offers for advocating a new privacy law is the new Human Rights Act. Several people have claimed a right of privacy under Article 8 of this baleful piece of Europe-inspired legislation.

Nonetheless, in most cases, judges have shown a reluctance to develop a new privacy law themselves and have suggested that privacy and the Press is a matter for the PCC.

So the select committee's suggestion that a new law is necessary to clarify issues of privacy does not wash. By its own admission, the record of newspapers in respecting privacy has improved, though no one would pretend it is perfect. The judges seem generally happy for the PCC, rather than they themselves, to determine whether the privacy of individuals has been unjustifiably invaded by newspapers.

Could it be that the Labourdominated Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee has a hidden agenda? A privacy law would curb the ability of the Press to report the activities of the rich and powerful. In France and other countries with privacy legislation, it is the rich and powerful who threaten to invoke the law in the relatively unusual event of newspapers having the courage of their convictions.

THE FINANCIAL and sexual shenanigans of leading politicians - often they are connected - may go unreported. The late President of France, Francois Mitterrand, kept a mistress by whom he had a daughter, but this only came to light shortly before his death when a book was published. The same newspapers which ignored his sexual adventures were slow to condemn him for the sleazy and sometimes criminal friends with whom he surrounded himself.

If a privacy law were introduced in this country, only the rich and powerful - and they include politicians - could afford to resort to the courts. The PCC, for all its failings, is open to all-comers regardless of their status or wealth. Last year it dealt with over 3,300 cases on matters ranging far beyond privacy. In the first quarter of this year, almost 70 per cent of complainants expressed satisfaction at the PCC's service.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that at least some of the MPs on the Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee resent the critical eye of the Press on their private affairs. Occasionally they may be justified. About six years ago, a Sunday red-top tabloid newspaper arranged secret cameras in a bedroom to film an errant married Tory MP as he engaged in sex with a young nightclub hostess. The public interest defence was not easy to see, though much else was.

But a brief survey of the past ten years shows how far many MPs of both main parties have fallen from the standards of financial and sexual probity which they proclaim and which the public has a right to expect in its elected representatives. …