Privacy and the media: time to hammer it out?

Paul Dacre might have chosen a better time to make what may come to be seen as a landmark speech on media privacy law in a year when some sections of the British Press have trodden all over the privacy of the McCann family for instance.
His remarks to the Society of Editors focus primarily on a case taken Mr Justice Eady, formerly David Eady a libel lawyer who worked for several tabloid newspapers; Mosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd. Dacre’s argument is that “the British press is having a privacy law imposed on it” by a single activist judge:

“This law is not coming from parliament. No, that would smack of democracy, but from the arrogant and amoral judgments, words I use very deliberately, of one man.”

Charlie Beckett, director of the POLIS think tank agrees:

…there needs to be a proper public debate. Government doesn’t want to be seen either to be limited media freedom or failing to protect the citizen’s right to privacy. But the fact that one judge seems to be making all the law on this is surely not the way to proceed.

The Press Complaints Commission, of which Dacre is Chair, succeeded the old Press Council back in 1990 at the recommendation of the Calcott committee. At the time there was some discussion as to whether or not the commission should have regulartory teeth.

A 1993 review of the self-regulation regime under the PCC was highly critical and recommended the instigation of a statutory complaints procedure. Two years later a Government when a White Paper on Privacy and Media Intrusion appeared it rejected all recommendations for statutory regulation and for a new tort of invasion of privacy.

One critic, Professor Eric Barendt, described the formulation of the paper as “government by correspondence, rather than a government of principle”.

Then when the Human Rights Act 1998 came in effect in 2000, and this previously unregulated sector began slowly to be reeled in by the actions of a single Judge. Article 8, which governs privacy, is one of the most laconic and open of the Act:

(1) Everyone has the right for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

(2) There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The ensuing vacuum has been filled by the courts, and the particular activism of Mr Justice Eady. There is no doubt that press freedom is under constant assault. Ministers are currently under pressure to scrap D Notices in favour of legislation that “prevents news outlets from reporting stories deemed by the Government to be against the interests of national security”.

But one of the reasons why the libel laws in the UK remain so ludicrously tight is that there has neither been the politicial will, nor the commericial appetite amongst the wider media to return to first principles to bring in stable legislation that would ensure (so far as is ever going to be possible) a proper balance between fredom of speech and the rights of the individual.

Ironically it’s the very unregulated nature of the press that’s left it open to judicial challenge. And yet until there is, it is hard to see how this problem is going to go away (or get resolved) any time soon…

  • joeCanuck

    An alternative view from The First Post: (extracts).

    Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail, has effectively argued that democracy might collapse and newspapers like his own could go out of business unless they are allowed – without reprisal or punishment – to go on publishing lies.

    These pronouncements sound high-minded and public-spirited; but their elevated moral tone is in marked contrast with the practice of the press, not least in the case of Paul Dacre’s own newspaper.

    The reason why Justice Eady found for Max Mosley was that the News of the World had published an odious and indefensible lie.

    Everybody who has been the subject of coverage in the newspapers knows that they routinely, unashamedly publish lies and that – fearing no reprisal or punishment – they care nothing about the consequences of their untruths upon the lives of their victims. No case more amply demonstrated that indifference than the treatment of the McCann parents over the abduction of their daughter Madeleine.

    Could any falsehood be more foul and loathsome than to allege, without any reason or evidence, that a child’s parents had been culpable in her disappearance and/or death? The Express Group newspapers which profited for months from trading in that horrible fiction fully deserved the penalties that were meted out in court when the McCanns sued.

  • Mick Fealty

    Have you got a link Joe? This is from the judgement:

    “The cause of action is breach of confidence and/or the unauthorised disclosure of personal information, said to infringe the Claimant’s rights of privacy as protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”). There is no claim in defamation and I am thus not directly concerned with any injury to reputation.”

    The judgement is worth reading at length, but the truth or otherwise of the allegations is not the determining factor, it is the invasion of privacy.

    Dacre’s (quite reasonable point IMHO) is that is swimming far from shore. He says that Parliament should deal with this, but every time parliament does try to deal with it, the politicians have backed down under severe pressure from the newspaper lobby.

  • joeCanuck
  • Tazia Doll

    A secret interest in sadism and masochism and prostitution in a public figure, doesn’t carry privacy entitlements. He didn’t even tell his wife apparently.

    Having said that, Tony Blair, has employed people who were even worse.

  • jone

    So Tazia..do you think anyone holding any public position (whatever that means) should have to pass a sexual behaviour test set by Neville Thurlbeck, Colin Myler and Paul Dacre?

    What would you deem acceptable…once a week with the lights off?

  • Jo

    This concern is more to do with the collapse in sales of the paper press than any high-minded concern with freedoms. I do not and cannot take seriously a Daily Mail editor spouting about freedom of speech – this phrase is and has been monopolised by those with the most obnoxious and hate-filled views and who fear that their paper might not reach as many potential BNP supporters as previously.