The Culture, Media & Sports Committee tell it like it is

The House of Commons Culture, Media and Sports Committee has published its long-awaited report on Privacy and Media Intrusion. In it the Committee made a series of recommendations. The one which has gathered the most publicity is that the Government ‘bring forward legislative proposals to clarify the protection that individuals can expect from unwarranted intrusion by anyone – not the press alone – into their private lives.’ As the Committee rightly says: ‘This is necessary fully to satisfy the obligations upon the UK under the European Convention on Human Rights.’ This was illustrated recently by the Peck case (see our February 2003 early warning).

There is already by means of the Human Rights Act a legislative provision providing some protection for individuals against intrusions into the private lives of individuals. This is by the importation (albeit obliquely) of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights into our law. Here are some of the other recommendations made by the Committee.

The Committee recommended that the PCC ‘should consider establishing a dedicated pre-publication team to handle enquiries about [prior restraint] issues from the public and liaison with the relevant editor on the matters raised.’ This is because it is at present only by means of a legal injunction (assuming legal rights have been infringed) that prior restraint of material which breaches the PCC Code can be obtained.

The Committee recommends that the Code should ‘explicitly ban payments to the Police for information…’ It is perhaps remarkable that it should be necessary for the Committee to make such a recommendation to a body representing the press, but since admissions were made before the Committee that such payments were made, despite the fact that they are plainly illegal, voluntary acceptance by the press that such payments are inappropriate may fare better than the mere fact that they are illegal.

The Committee recommended that press members of the Commission and of the Code Committee ‘who preside over persistently offending publications should be required to stand down and should ineligible for reappointment for a period…’ It also recommended that the lay majority on the Commission should be increased by at least one, and that the Code Committee (presently composed entirely of editors) should be re-established with a significant minority of lay members.

On the issue of prominence, the Committee recommended that ‘any publication required to publish a formal PCC adjudication must include a prominent reference to that adjudication on its front page…’ This seems to have been accepted by the PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly if the Commission is going to be perceived as having any teeth in the face of the powerful creature that it is designed to tame, the Committee recommended the establishment of ‘a fixed scale of compensatory awards to be made in serious cases…’ As we all know, breaches of the Code are committed by (in particular) the popular press because they are commercially lucrative. If the Code is going to have a real impact on such abuses of the rights of the individual, then the Commission which adjudicates upon it must have the power to impose real financial penalties.

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