Lawyers split on privacy status quo

THE GOVERNMENT'S wholesale rejection of tougher privacy laws has won a mixed reaction from lawyers, with some warning that tabloid excesses will now continue unchecked.

Those acting for the press welcome the Government's recognition of the difficulties inherent in privacy law.

However, plaintiff lawyers criticise the Government for failing to consider “serious public concerns”.

Andrew Stephenson, of Peter Carter Ruck & Partners, says: “No one expected it to be an easy exercise to come up with a workable framework of legislation, but the need is that this should be done. There is a serious public concern that has not been addressed.”

Jonathan Caplan QC, who headed the Bar Council's privacy working party, says: “I am disappointed. I don't think self-regulation works or can be made to work.”

He adds: “It's a bit of a slap in the face for Calcutt, whose recommendations after two considered reports deserved implementation.”

National Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley has ruled out the main proposals arising from the department's select committee and the Calcutt committee for a statutory press tribunal, a press ombudsman, criminal offences relating to surveillance or a civil remedy for infringement of privacy in a privacy Bill.

Outlining the Privacy and Media Intrusion White Paper, Bottomley told Parliament: “We have been forced to conclude that the difficulties of scope and definition of the proposed offences, and the necessary defences, are formidable. The Government would prefer to see a self-regulatory process than to introduce a law which could create more problems than it is designed to solve.”

Instead, the Government calls for improved self-regulation and an industry compensation fund for plaintiffs.

The Guardian and The Observer editor-in-chief Peter Preston says the press, which had been expecting legislative proposals, was surprised by the White Paper. “I thought the whole thing was a considerable triumph for common sense.”

News International legal manager Tom Crone welcomes the paper, adding: “Despite what all the MPs say, the problem is not all that great.”

And Philip Conway, Davenport Lyons media partner, adds: “The publication of the truth must be protected.”