Home Page

Column 1299

House of Commons

Friday 27 January 1989

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Orders of the Day

Protection of Privacy Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.35 am

Mr. John Browne (Winchester) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

At the outset, I should declare that I have interests in the media industry, both as a director of a satellite television company and as a member of the board of an international newspaper. I should declare, too, a general interest in this Bill, for I, like every man, woman and child, will stand to benefit from the protection that it offers. I wish to record my sincere thanks to those eminent people who have helped me in drafting the Bill, including the Clerks of the House, the Library staff, my staff, especially Miss White, and other people in the House of Commons. Professional reasons prevent me from mentioning some of their names, but I can mention Mr. Peter Ashman of Justice, Mr. Mark Littman, QC, Mr. Henry King, a senior partner in David Polk and Wardwell in New York, and, of course, my old friend, Mr. Peter Carter-Ruck, that most eminent of solicitors who, together with Mr. Littman, chaired the key Justice report of 1970, to which I shall refer.

I thank, too, my sponsors, who come from both sides of the House, and, on behalf of them, may I tell my hon. Friend the Minister that we are putting before the House the principle of privacy protection. We do not hold that our drafting is perfect. Therefore, should the Government come forward with amendments, we as sponsors will be thoroughly co-operative.

I make a special menion of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). His knowledge has been of great help to me. Although he is not a barrister, I truly feel that he is my hon. and learned Friend.

In describing the concept of privacy--the right to be let alone--I can do no better than qote from the Justice report of 1970, which states :

"To preserve his sense of identity and the integrity of his personality, to work out his personal relationships and find his way to his own salvation, each human being needs to be able to limit the area of his intercourse with others Above all, we need to be able to keep to ourselves, if we want to, those thoughts and feelings, beliefs and doubts, hopes, plans, fears and fantasies, which we call private' precisely because"

when we wish to--

"we wish to be able to choose freely with whom, and to what extent, we are willing to share them The problem, therefore, is one of balancing the individual's need for privacy against the legitimate needs of the community".

Column 1300

I re-emphasise to right hon. and hon. Members that we must always distinguish between the public interest and the interests of the public, which are often different and sometimes even conflicting. Past Governments have ensured that protection exists for the individual in respect of his physical person, his personal reputation and his personal property, including intellectual property. However, no effective legal protection of personal privacy exists under English law. There is a serious gap in our law. It is clear from Gallup polls that about 70 per cent. of the public are both disgusted by and concerned about the increasing exploitation of breaches of privacy for financial gain. That public concern is reflected in Parliament, where in the last Session about 60 per cent. of Back Benchers signed early-day motions supporting the right to privacy. Today our lives are lived in a more and more congested style. In a world of increasingly sophisticated eavesdropping devices and of instant global communication, the need for legal privacy protection is increasing fast. In other countries, including the United States, Germany, Holland, Italy and France, privacy laws have worked for decades and yet there is no evidence that the freedom of speech has suffered one jot. In France, for example, the equivalent of Private Eye is the magazine Le Canard and it thrives despite the French privacy laws. In the United States, privacy laws exist despite the fact that the first amendment to the United States constitution is the protection of free speech and the freedom of the press. The American equivalents of Private Eye, however, Spy and Village Voice, continue to thrive.

Why is it that the law in this country authorises no protection for individual privacy? Why are we so far behind? Why has not something been done already? In this respect it is important to note that the Government have already signed international human rights conventions that enshrine the right to privacy as a basic human right. Obviously, by signing international conventions to this effect, the British Government agree in principle to that right. Therefore, why do we not have laws in common with other countries?

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North) : My hon. Friend referred to an international convention, the European convention on human rights, and I believe that he meant article 8. Will he reflect on the fact that article 10 provides for freedom of information and freedom to disseminate information?

Mr. Browne : My hon. Friend raises a valid issue, which is at the crux of the debate : where should the balance be struck? At the moment everything is wide open and there is no balance. The aim of the Bill is to strike a balance that protects the individual citizen's privacy.

Why do we not have laws similar to those in other countries to protect privacy within the United Kingdom? As the learned Lord Ross said in his minority report from the 1972 Younger committee, to continue without such laws is,

"At least to some extent, a sham."

He also said :

"The law in the United Kingdom should now be brought into line with these important declarations."

That was in 1972, 17 years ago.

In today's world, I firmly believe that the protection of privacy is a fundamental human right, along with freedom of speech, of movement and of free association. Surely all

Column 1301

men and women in our land believe that their home is their castle in which their private lives should be protected and that preserving privacy is in the public interest. My sponsors and I hope that the Bill will put water in the moat of everyone's castle.

I have had an explanatory memorandum to the Bill printed and, therefore, I shall not waste the time of the House by describing each clause in detail. I will, of course, try to answer any questions that may arise. Basically, the Bill recognises two competing interests--freedom of information, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight), and the protection of individual privacy. The Bill seeks to confer remedies for the public misuse of private information rather than a general right for the protection of privacy.

Essentially the Bill is based on international human rights obligations already accepted by the Crown. Clause 1 creates the statutory tort of breach of privacy. It allows the plaintiff to have someone else act for him under power of attorney if, for instance, the plaintiff is abroad and wants an injunction. It defines the persons who may be liable for committing a breach of privacy. Clause 2(1) is most important as it balances the competing interests of freedom of information with the protection of the individual's privacy. It includes a hurdle or test for the plaintiff. That has been specifically included to ensure that the press is not shackled. Clause 2(2) gives guidance to the court on balancing the competing interests. Clause 2(2)(a) provides an extension of the public interest to include public benefit. I have included that so that the narrow definition of public interest, which might only include misconduct and criminal activity, is extended to include other things that may be of benefit for the public to know. Clause 3 provides the other defences in addition to that of public interest. Clause 4 outlines the remedies that a court may award. It also gives guidelines to a court on assessing damages. Clause 5 states the period of limitation. Clause 6 ensures that the court will not award double damages. Clause 7 identifies the areas of a person's life that most reasonable people would regard as private and that are protected by virtue of the Crown's international human rights obligations. They are personal communications, the home, personal relationships, personal health, personal behaviour and personal financial affairs. It also defines personal and public use of dissemination by means of printed matter or broadcast material. That is important as it ensures that conversations, even gossipy conversations, are not killed by the Bill, which does not set out to be the kill-joy of normal village tittle-tattle.

Clause 8 allows the Bill to operate in Scotland. Clause 9 ensures that no actions can be brought on matters arising before the Bill comes into effect. Clause 10 binds the Crown, defines the short title of the Bill and provides for it to come into force on 1 January 1990.

In general, the Bill calls for no procedural changes. It preserves the principles of open justice, of damage relative to harm proved, the avoidance of double damages and the principle of mitigation. It does not include, however, provision for legal aid. Critics of the Bill argue that the absence of legal aid means that only the rich can benefit from the Bill's protection. Although I support legal aid, its inclusion in the Bill would have incurred the immediate

Column 1302

hostility of the Government. It would have provided officials with easy ammunition with which to attack the Bill. Furthermore, those who feel strongly that legal aid should have been included will surely accept that the key issue is the principle of legal privacy protection. If such protection is needed, it should not be overruled simply because the Government do not think it is right to provide legal aid.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although the absence of a legal aid provision is a disappointment, it will be possible to bring an action in the local county court and that it is now possible to obtain guidance easily on how to bring such actions in person? Therefore, there should be ready redress in a local court.

Mr. Browne : I am glad that the hon. and learned Gentleman has raised that point because he anticipates my next statement. Critics have said that the Bill is for the rich only, but I must drive home the fact that the Bill is designed for the ordinary man and woman in the street. What the hon. and learned Gentleman says is perfectly correct, and after the Lord Chancellor's review a person will be able to take a case to the county court for about £20. That means that there will be wide access to the courts for everyone, including those on low incomes.

Mr. Greg Knight : Did my hon. Friend seek the advice of the eminent lawyers he mentioned on the subject of legal aid, because I am not sure that what he is saying is right? In the absence of any comment about legal aid, I understand that the normal rules for civil legal aid would apply to the Bill. That being so, has my hon. Friend any idea of what the implications for the costs to the legal aid fund would be?

Mr. Browne : That is a deep, legal question. As I understand it, without provision for legal aid, legal aid would not apply, just as it does not apply now for cases brought under the defamation laws. I shall try to confirm that during the course of the debate. The subject of financial accessibility to justice faces our entire legal system and it is far beyond the scope of the Bill. I should re-emphasise, however, that, unlike libel plaintiffs, plaintiffs under the Bill can bring their cases before the county courts, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) has said. Following the Lord Chancellor's review, access to the county courts will be much cheaper than it is even today. Therefore, the Bill will greatly improve accessibility for the less well off in comparison to access currently afforded in civil torts such as those of defamation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), whom I much admire and who is one of my political heroes, wrote an article which appeared in The Evening Standard last night which raised that exact point. It is unfortunate that he is not here today because I do not like to talk about hon. Members when they are absent from the Chamber. My right hon. Friend said :

"Few such ordinary people would be protected by Mr. Browne's Bill, any more than they are protected by the law of libel."

That is utterly incorrect. He also said :

"Mr. Browne's Bill is bound to inhibit the freedom of the Press to do its proper job."

I dispute that and hope to illustrate later why that view is

Column 1303

wrong. The less well off will have much better legal access under the Bill than under the present laws of tort, such as libel. The Bill has also been criticised for not including a provision for a jury. Naturally, I support jury trials, and I should willingly accept amendments that allowed either side to demand trial by jury, as in libel cases. In fact, I excluded juries simply to protect the press from extortionate and punitive damage payments. It is, perhaps, worth noting that in the case of South Hetton Coalfield v. North Eastern News in 1894, the judge ruled specifically that the determination of public interest was a matter of law for the judge. Hence the concept of a judge determining what is in the public interest or benefit has been recognised as a matter of law for 100 years or more. The Press has not felt the need to complain until now.

The Bill has been criticised for its provisions about injunctions. Basically, there is no change in the Bill in the method and manner in which injunctions are applied for and granted. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Parliament's wish to see privacy protected is not new. Bills have been introduced by the late Lord Mancroft in 1961, Alexander Lyon in 1967, Brian Walden in 1969 and, most recently, by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. This Bill draws upon their experiences, and I salute and thank all those who have gone before. Despite the mounting evidence of popular demand for protection of privacy, reflected by the presentation of no fewer than four Bills, past Governments have avoided the issue. Whether the fear of media moguls or the fear of an anti-media image has played a part, I know not, but I do know that nothing effective has been done to protect the privacy of the individual citizen. The moats around the castle homes of England are dry and individual privacy is invaded, at profit, with impunity.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the benefits of the Bill should be extended to Northern Ireland? Could he arrange that?

Mr. Browne : I believe that the benefits should be extended to the whole of the United Kingdom, and I and my sponsors would agree to extend it to Northern Ireland if amendments were tabled to that effect in Committee.

The smokescreen put up by past Governments has followed a pattern. First, such a Bill would be unworkable, despite the fact that privacy laws have worked, and worked successfully, without muzzling the press in other countries for decades. Furthermore, the tort of privacy is very similar to the tort of libel, which has worked well in our country for a century or more. The second reason given was that there are competing interests, so self-regulation is best. But self-regulation tends to cater for only one side of the balance of interests and, as a principle, the Government themselves, in many areas, no longer tolerate self-regulation in such places as the stock exchange, where regulations are now fully backed by statute law. The third reason given by past Governments was that the key definitions of privacy and public interest are too difficult. We as sponsors maintain that such definitions may be difficult, but they are definitely not impossible. We already live and work with definitions of other equally difficult legal concepts such as nuisance, negligence, obscenity, trespass, misrepresentation and contempt. For the past 36 years, cases of breach of privacy have been

Column 1304

decided by the Press Council. In each case, individual members of the council have had to decide according to their own individual view of privacy and public interest. The result? It has been arbitrary definitions with no restitution for the wronged. Meanwhile, breaches of privacy have become even more outrageous.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington) : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the Press Council. At the moment, if a complaint goes to the Press Council, one waives one's right to seek any other recourse. It would seem that, under clause 6, one could take a complaint about privacy to the Press Council and then have the right to go to court to seek the damages that the Press Council was unable to award. Is that so?

Mr. Browne : That is so ; and, of course, it is so under the laws of libel today. That is why the Press Council has instituted the waiver, which I find distasteful. I do not see why any citizen should waive his legal right to appeal to a tribunal. None the less, that may be a matter that can be dealt with in Committee. The provisions of the Bill are exactly the same as the laws on defamation. Let us now look briefly at the key definitions of privacy and public interest. The Government have already signed international human rights conventions enshrining personal privacy as a fundamental human right. My definitions are based on those very same conventions, as identified in clause 7. Surely any reasonable person, given the facts, will have a clear idea whether privacy has been breached. People keep asking about uncertain cases, but they are provided for in the Bill. The Bill directs that if there is uncertainty, the decision must be made in favour of publication. If my critics are correct and uncertainty does exist or does enter the mind of the court, publication will take place.

The concept of public interest or benefit is not new in English law. Section 6 of Lord Campbell's Libel Act of 1843 refers to public benefit. Section 4 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888 refers to public concern and public benefit, as does section of the Defamation Act 1952. Section 3 of the Theatres Act 1968 refers to the public good. Indeed, a key in the defence of fair comment in our present libel laws is the ability to show public interest. Ample precedents for public interest already exist and are practised constantly in English law.

Despite those legal precedents, some Government officials may still feel that legislation would be too difficult. Here I shall quote the views of two eminent barristers. The noble and learned Lord Ross, in his minority report to the Younger committee, said :

"uncertainties in the law are not unusual. To decline to alter the law because it would be difficult to define the new law is a doctrine of despair which could be applied to almost any proposed legal reform."

The noble and learned Lord Alexander, perhaps the most eminent practising barrister in the land, said in an article in The Daily Telegraph on 21 January 1989 :

"This Bill may well be capable of improvement, or may need some amendment ; but the principles it seeks to protect should now become part of our law."

If the Government have any ideas for improving the definition in the Bill, we as sponsors will co-operate fully.

I now turn to the press, which will be much affected by the Bill and which is, quite rightly, concerned. A free press is the key to the sustenance of a free democracy. However,

Column 1305

within that free democracy people as individuals must also be free to speak, to move and to associate, and free to enjoy the dignity of privacy.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate) : Would the Bill give some protection to members of the royal family who suffer from prying journalists and photographers in their private lives?

Mr. Browne : My hon. Friend raises an important subject. As I have said, everyone must be equally subject to the law and equally protected by it. Plainly, that includes the royal family. But whether people wish to exercise the remedies by going to court would be up to individuals.

In any civilised country the right to publish private information should prevail only where publication could be shown to be in the public interest. In that respect I shall now turn to the Younger committee. The Bills of the 1960s caused the then Governments to institute royal commissions, including the Younger committee, which reported in 1972. This was an important report and resulted in a significant minority report by Mr., now Lord, Ross. The Younger committee concluded that, first, there was no evidence of serious infringement of privacy. Secondly, it concluded that reliance could be placed on self-regulation and the professional ethics of the potential infringers of privacy backed by the Press Council remedy. The third recommendation was that a reformed law on breach of confidence would fill any of the remaining gaps. Today those findings appear naive.

I suspect that few people would think that the problem of privacy invasion was not serious. Events of the past decade or so have been extremely serious, and clearly something has to be done. The people of our country are looking to the Government for help in the formation of legal protection. In this respect it is clear from history that we cannot rely upon self-restraint by the media ; the competitive forces are far too great. A line needs to be drawn. I understand that some people, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford, are minded to give the Press Council another chance under its new chairman, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper, QC. Another chance after 36 years on trial and three royal commissions? My view is that the Press Council, which issued its own declaration in 1976, has tried hard but, to say the least, has been ineffective. Even The Observer of 22 January said in an editorial about the Press Council :

"The present set-up is well-meaning, amateurish and ineffectual." The Press Council is not seen to act on behalf of the public. It is an attempt at self-regulation that has failed over the past 36 years, not because of any lack of will or ability on the part of its individual members, but because Parliament has given it no definitions of privacy or public interest. We have given it no guidelines and no teeth so that there is no restitution for the wronged.

Some people argue that the Press Council should be given teeth, but in today's world that means damages of hundreds of thousands of pounds. If the Press Council were given teeth, the press would rightly demand that evidence should be given on oath instead of upon written deposition, and that professional representation by barristers should be allowed. If the Government were to

Column 1306

accept that, it would effectively turn the tribunal of the Press Council into a court. Why not accept the demand for legislation now? I have interviewed the past chairman of the Press Council, Sir Zelman Cowen, and I am sure that he supports the Bill. He is on record as saying that he is sick at heart from revelations exposing people to hurt. I also believe that the new chairman of the Press Council, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper, would find the Bill very acceptable. Despite this serious situation, no Government have yet taken action. Even the Bill has been rubbished as woolly. In that respect I should again like to draw the House's attention to Lord Alexander's article of 21 January. He says :

"The strongest criticism of any suggested law of privacy has invariably been that such a law would be too vague and leave too much to the discretion of the judges. I have always thought that this view underestimates the ability of the common law to develop both purposely and with common sense. The law of confidence, evolved to cover situations as different as commercial secrets and information held by members of the security services, is judge-made law. I hope the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Law Officers will not consider, as it has been reported they might, that such a law would be unworkable. We can trust to the vitality of the development of the common law, and to a sensible balance maintained by the judges. If Mr. Browne's Bill needs clarification, it should be amended, not killed".

In relation to the rubbishing in certain sections of the media, I shall turn again to the minority report of Lord Ross in 1972. In that report he says :

"The truth is that the press have always fought a strong, rearguard action when it has been suggested that the press acts unfairly towards private individuals. In seeking quite legitimately to protect what they see to be their best interests, the press have always exaggerated the dangers of muzzling the press".

This is happening today, and I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford is wrong to give it so much credence. The impression given in some sections of the media is that news gathering would be hampered by the Bill. Unlike its predecessors, the Bill makes no attempt whatever to stop sound investigative journalism, which can occasionally lead to the exposure of criminal activity.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South) : My hon. Friend makes an important point when he says that under the terms of his Bill honourable news gathering and investigative journalism can continue. My hon. Friend has been long on principles and short on specific examples. I should like to put a specific example to him and ask him how his Bill deals with it.

Immediately after recent major disasters, such as those at Hungerford and Lockerbie and the one that greatly concerned my constituents, the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the tabloid press sent reporters to do truly outrageous things to people. For example, in the case of my constituent, Captain David Lewry, the captain of the Herald of Free Enterprise, tabloid reporters smashed down the walls of his intensive care unit, invaded his home, put microphones in his car and treated that honourable man to a degree of invasion of privacy that was disgusting and vicious by any standards. When my hon. Friend comes to the weighing of public interests versus rights of privacy, will he be able to tell us that the Bill will stop such abuses in such future disasters?

Mr. Browne : I agree with my hon. Friend's every word. I must explain that I have been short on examples because

Column 1307

I am trying to limit my speech to give other hon. Members the chance to give examples. The examples of invasion that my hon. Friend quotes would not be directly stopped by the Bill. However, it would stop them indirectly because it would not pay television or broadcasting companies or the press to make intrusive interviews of the type that my hon. Friend quoted of the captain of the Herald of Free Enterprise because they could not publish them afterwards. The Bill gets at this by stopping the publication of private information rather than stopping the gathering of information, which may uncover crime. Technology may well eventually outstrip anything that we could write into what would become an even more complex Bill.

As I say, rather than concentrating on stopping investigation, the Bill stops the illegitimate publication of private information. Let us remember that privacy laws in other countries have not even hampered, let alone muzzled, the press. The Bill has been especially tailored to meet the legitimate interests of the press. Some people even say that it is too biased towards the press.

In conclusion, I should like briefly to mention some of the support that I have received, most interestingly, from within the media. Indeed, I have been told privately by a number of journalists, both from the press and broadcasting, that they will be delighted to see this Bill become law. One tabloid journalist said to me--

Mr. Corbett : Don't name him, for Heaven's sake.

Mr. Browne : The hon. Gentleman anticipates my fear. The tabloid journalist said :

"You will be amazed at the support for your Bill even from my paper. After all, we are human. We have children and families. We do not like to carry out some of the intrusive operations that we are given by our editors. We are professionally embarrassed. However, if we fail to get the story"

such as the one quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken)--

"we get the sack. Even our editors are driven by the competition of free market forces in an ever-downward spiral."

[Interruption.] Opposition Members may laugh. I must say that these words are a quotation. They are not even a quotation criticising the free market ; they are criticising a free market with no bounds. That tabloid journalist went on to say :

"Many of us would welcome it if someone drew the line." In other words, it is like drawing the boundary lines of a football game--free game and equal competition, but within the limits. My plea to my right hon. Friends in Government, and especially in the Home Office, is to see this Bill as putting forward a principle--that is, the legal protection of the privacy of every man, woman and child in our country. Do the Government agree or not agree that individuals should have this right, a right that already exists in most civilised countries where water now fills the moat of every citizen's home or castle? The eminent legal practitioners whom I have consulted have all agreed that this Bill is long overdue and thoroughly workable in our courts that are familiar with dealing with civil wrongs. The key issue is whether an individual citizen should have any legal right to privacy.

I conclude with two quotations, first, from the noble and learned Lord Denning who, as Master of the Rolls, in the 1961 debate on Lord Mancroft's Bill, said

Column 1308

"if the law does not give the right of privacy, the sooner this Bill gives it the better".--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 13 March 1961 ; Vol. 229, c. 640.]

Secondly, I quote again from Lord Alexander, QC, who said : "This Bill may well be capable of improvement or may need some amendment but the principles it seeks to protect should now become part of our law."

Preserving privacy is in the public interest. In that spirit, I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : It will be evident to the House that many hon. Members wish to speak in this debate, so I hope that speeches will not be too long.

10.13 am

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne), first, on the principle that he is seeking to espouse in the Bill and, secondly, on his speech, which set it out most cogently and will enable me and other hon. Members speaking in support of the Bill to be brief. It is important that we should hear a wide range of views and I believe that we shall hear substantial support for the Bill from all parties.

The Bill seeks to incorporate for the first time a positive and important right into the law of the United Kingdom. I agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) that that should mean the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. The right that the Bill seeks to incorporate into British law is the right of privacy. There is no such right in any substantive sense in British law at present. As a result of the absence of such a right, we should not mince our words about what the press sometimes does. The hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) gave a striking example of the way in which the press can misbehave when he spoke of what they did to the life of the captain of the Herald of Free Enterprise. However, every day, not only in respect of people who have attracted public attention, such as Captain Lewry, but in respect of ordinary citizens who do not have the defence of a big corporation around them, or of wealth, we read in some newspapers of deliberately dredged smut that has no connection with the public interest whatsoever. A minority of newspapers produce that smut, but it is a majority of the copy going out over the newsagents' counters that contains that dreadful material. Day after day, local councillors, people who have had road accidents, Members of Parliament, doctors and nurses, but rarely journalists--I wonder what they would think if we were to say, on the Floor of the House with the protection of parliamentary privilege, what we know about some of them--are subjected to horrendous and often untruthful newspaper articles about their private lives.

The bench mark of a free press is that it acts in the public interest. A free press must be able to act in the public interest, even if that interest is contrary to the views of the Government and of very powerful people in the land, including the proprietors of those newspapers. However, it is not for the press to tell us by what standard the public interest is to be judged. It ill-behoves the press, and there is no intellectual or logical justification for it, to deny Parliament and the courts the right to set what is a reasonable standard for the public interest.

The Bill, of which I am proud to be a sponsor, gives the courts the opportunity at last to decide where the line between public interest and sheer prurience lies. Unfortunately, there is at the moment an industry founded

Column 1309

on prurience. Hundreds of journalists could do--and most would like to do--a much more useful job, but are told by their proprietors to go snoop and pry. They will lose their jobs if they refuse. There is no public interest whatsoever in that sort of invasion of privacy, except of course, the public interest in bringing it to an end. The Bill sets out a number of categories of human life and behaviour which should surely be protected from the type of journalism that has become prevalent in the past few years. Clause 7 sets out the six categories.

Why should the press be able to steal and then publish the private letters of individuals? Surely personal communications, including telephone calls, should be protected. It is a fact beyond denial that the press intercept people's telephones, put listening bugs on their windows, and use what they hear to produce newspaper stories. It is beyond doubt that people's homes, too, should be protected. What legitimate interest have the press in their contents and, most particularly, in people's very private belongings and interests? If a person has a row with his wife, it should not be trailed across a newspaper--but it is at the whim of an editor. I applaud the Bill for seeking to protect personal relationships. If someone in public life has a sexual orientation that does not accord with the majority view, should not that information be protected, unless it affects his performance and integrity in a public office? What possible public interest can there be in it, except merely that which some find enjoyable--the reading of a bit of smut about a person of note?

If an individual is suffering from a serious illness such as AIDS or any other form of virus, surely he is entitled to the protection of the law, so that unless he is willing to have that information published, the press should not be entitled to publish it willy-nilly. The Bill provides for anyone who wishes to waive his rights. If an individual wishes to take money from a newspaper to have his private affairs trailed across page 3 of the Sun or page 4 of the News of the World, that is a matter for him. He can take the money and the paper is free to publish. But the right to retain privacy should be protected.

The final category that the Bill seeks to protect is personal financial affairs. There are people in public life who are very rich, and there are people in public life who are much poorer than the public might ever imagine.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Is the hon. and learned Gentleman talking about me?

Mr. Carlile : The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) puts himself in the latter category.

Some right hon. and hon. Members might have overdrafts, while others might have money in the bank. What business is it of the press into which of those categories a right hon. or hon. Member falls, unless he chooses to waive his right of privacy? The exception is where a right hon. or hon. Member's financial affairs are a matter of genuine public interest, by standards generous to the press and set out in clauses 2 and 3.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East) : Bearing in mind that many, if not all, journalists are elastic with their expenses claims--it is a profession well known for that practice--

Column 1310

does the hon. and learned Gentleman recall any newspaper publishing a story about journalists claiming exaggerated expenses, or any legal action being taken against them?

Mr. Carlile : I cannot recall a single story of that kind being published, though right hon. and hon. Members are peculiarly prone to receiving publicity about whether they have paid even small bills. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.

If the Bill, duly amended, becomes law, properly trained journalists will start doing the job they were trained to do. That job is to investigate, present news, and write stories that are of genuine public interest. At present, I find certain newspapers easy to read, because there is practically nothing in them to read. I also find them difficult to read because they contain so much that is offensive. If the Bill becomes law, newspapers will have to change the way in which their contents are written. I look forward to reading the Sun when it has some news on its pages. I look forward to reading the News of the World when its editor has to ensure that its contents are true, and are in accordance with the Bill's provisions.

I hope that the House will have the courage to face up to the howling of the press, and to ensure that the right of privacy is enshrined in our law.

10.25 am

Next Section

  Home Page