Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : I had a job with the Press Council at that time. He was the only one who treated it with such disrespect while it was under the chairmanship of Lord Devlin. It was only after Lord Devlin left that the press began to put two fingers up to it.
Even today there are such examples, and the Sun is foremost among them. There was the case of Mr. Terrance McCabe who refused to cross the picket line at Wapping. I was wholly opposed to the dispute at Wapping and I thought that the unions were quite wrong. But I am happy
Column 1338to draw to the attention of the House an example which involves somebody who is wholly opposed to what I stand for which demonstrates the tyranny of the press over individuals. Mr. McCabe refused to cross the picket line at Wapping. The Sun then printed a story about him calling him a "lying trucker" and printed details of his previous convictions. That article was condemned by the Press Council. The Sun responded by repeating the allegations and dared Mr. McCabe to sue. The Press Council further censured the Sun. As a result the Sun published the adjudication prominently and in full and repeated the allegations for the third time. Quite manifestly, the Press Council is not treated seriously by the press.
Mr. Cash : I spoke to Terrance McCabe quite recently and I received a letter from his wife explaining the incredible hurt, the dreadful way in which she was treated and the fact that their children were involved. Therefore, the situation involved their entire family.
The position of the Press Council is so bad that in 1980 the NUJ withdrew its support for the Press Council on the ground that it was incapable of reform and wholly ineffective. I share the view of the NUJ, as do most hon. Members present today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight), who I know is a libertarian and is opposed to the Bill, drew attention to article 10 of the European convention on human rights which refers to the right to information. But that right to information is already restricted in many respects by existing law, not least by the law relating to defamation which by and large concerns only false allegations ; but in some cases, even the truth is defeated as a defence of defamation by proof of malice, so there are restrictions on the dissemination of truthful information where it is not regarded as being justifiable in the public interest. The defence of fair comment in defamation is available only if that fair comment is made in the public interest.
If the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) were to extend his argument that we cannot trust the courts to decide such issues, logic would dictate that we remove one of the existing defences in the law of defamation which was designed to protect persons making comments in the public interest.
The Bill does not introduce anything particularly novel in the method by which it seeks to achieve its object. Over the centuries the courts have developed the law in a flexible way and it will be further developed according to the acceptance of society at the time.
Mr. Lawrence : My hon. Friend does not need to be defensive in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) because the international covenant on civil and political rights and the European convention on human rights include rights of privacy, so we are inconsistent with those international agreements by not having such a right.
Mr. Hamilton : I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that information. It is true that we are unusual amongst industrial and advanced states in having no protection for the rights of privacy.
Column 1339that he will accept that it is only right for me to place on record the reason why I made that intervention. It is not fair to make a selective reference to a convention. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) referred to article 8, but we should also appreciate that the convention contains article 10.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) spoke about other countries' laws on privacy. He should bear in mind that their laws on defamation are different from ours. We should look at the whole picture and not just at this particular narrow matter.
Mr. Hamilton : I accept that. The experiences of different countries will differ. Some countries' laws are more draconian than the Bill's provisions, and others are less so. Nevertheless, we are unusual amongst Western countries in having no proper protection for the individual against the abuses about which we have heard so much this morning.
I resent the view expressed by some hon. Members who, although they support the Bill, say that, as public figures, we are not entitled to privacy in our personal lives. There are aspects of our behaviour in private that impinge on our public duties, and it is right that the public should have a right to know about those actions and we should be held accountable for them. However, there is a swathe of activities which may not appeal to everyone but which are private and which those in the public eye are entitled to carry out privately. Mr. Nigel Dempster, who performs a function that might be described as dandruff on the shoulders of Fleet street--that is the politest way to describe him--said :
"People who promote themselves as Members of Parliament, or write books and flog them to the public, or open their houses for profit, forfeit their right to their personal lives. They know that. They've known that throughout the history of this great country of ours." That is an example of arrogance in the press that we are here to complain about-- [Interruption.] I look forward to the revelations to come in the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett).
I am anxious to complete my speech but I shall address the complaint made by opponents of the Bill that the proposals it contains are vague. They are no more vague than the concepts used in the common laws of negligence and nuisance and others upon which British law is based--the concept of reasonableness and the reasonable man. For 500 or 600 years the courts have developed and interpreted those concepts according to the facts of each case. The courts will continue to be able to do that and to develop in accordance with changes in feeling about this issue as they do in other matters. If the Bill is passed, as I hope it will be, it will not lead to undue prohibition of freedom of speech. There are few countries in which that principle is taken more seriously than in the United States where it is protected by the constitution and the Supreme Court. The United States has a law of privacy which, in many respects, is similar to that which we are seeking to achieve in the Bill. It is applicable, inter alia, only if it involves private facts that do not belong to the category of legitimate news, the provisions of which are protected by the United States guarantee of freedom of speech. Although there is no written constitution in this country, we can replicate the provisions in the United States on legitimate access to information.
Column 1340It has been said before that nobody lost money by underestimating the public taste. Tabloid newspapers have proved that daily for many years. We should ask them to do what the News of the World used to place at the end of its agent provocateur articles--make an excuse and leave.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) on his success in the ballot and on the skilful, persuasive and eloquent manner in which he invited the House to give the Bill a Second Reading. I pay tribute to the fact that he has not been afraid to make use of his good fortune in the ballot to take up an issue which, while undoubtedly of much public interest and importance, has nonetheless had a somewhat chequered history of previous attempts to legislate. I admire the pertinacity of my hon. Friend and his drafting ally, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). I have seen them a number of times in recent weeks huddled together in various parts of the House like Cassius and Casca, looking lean and hungry while preparing the Bill. I hope only that it is a Fleet street Julius Caesar whom they have in their sights rather than a Minister.
The roll call of those who have tried but failed to introduce a statutory right of privacy is impressive. Previous attempts were made by Lord Mancroft in 1961, Alex Lyon in 1967, Brian Walden in 1969 and, most recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford in 1987. The Walden Bill led the then Home Secretary, now Lord Callaghan, to establish a committee on privacy under the chairmanship of the late Sir Kenneth Younger, which reported in 1972. Despite its age, the Younger report is still the definitive work on the subject. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester that its findings were naive. Events have moved on since 1972 and the world described by Younger was in some respects different from that of today. I should not wish to suggest that Younger's recommendations must necessarily represent the last word, but much of the committee's underlying analysis remains good and we must carefully consider the arguments that it presented.
I echo strongly what my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and other hon. Members said about the extent of concern at the intrusion into individuals' private lives. I should not want to ignore the serious distress and hurt that can be caused to victims and their families. Undoubtedly, there is growing resentment in many quarters at the way in which some of the tabloid press blatantly exploits details of the private lives of not only public figures but, on too many occasions, ordinary people such as victims of disasters and their relatives, who, through no choice of their own, but through bad luck or happenstance, are thrust into the public eye. I hope that what has been said in the debate will be widely reported in the tabloids and the serious press.
Column 1341There is something very objectionable about seeing the privacy of individuals invaded and lives, reputations and families destroyed by newspapers in pursuit simply of higher circulation figures. At times it seems as if the freedom of the press has degenerated into unpleasant and unforgivable licence. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) gave us examples of the disgraceful behaviour of journalists after the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) picked up on that theme in his inimitable columnist style. To show that the feeling is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am sure that we all have much sympathy with the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) and a sense of disgust at some of the things described by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway).
It is one thing to feel a sense of outrage and distaste about those things, but it is quite another to devise a sensible and satisfactory means of putting matters right. To use the metaphor employed by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, we need a means that will keep the water in the moat surrounding the metaphorical castle rather than one which allows it to seep out in unforeseen ways.
Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) : Does the Minister agree that as well as the invasion of privacy and the harm that is done to individuals and families, we should also consider the standards of our media and press? Material involving degeneracy and a low level of titillation does not simply relate to the invasion of privacy. There must be fundamental standards in the press. That enters the argument as well.
Mr. Renton : The hon. Lady is trying to lead me down an avenue in which she is very interested and which she may want to explore in the context of another private Member's Bill later in the Session. I understand and sympathise with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and his sponsors that this area calls for legislative action. I am aware that others take a similar view. Some years ago a committee of Justice, the British section of the International Commission of Jurists, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester referred, published an influential report calling for the creation of a general right of privacy. That report was the basis for Brian Walden's subsequent Bill and the arguments have been carried forward since by Peter Carter-Ruck and most recently by Lord Alexander in his article in The Daily Telegraph last week.
Those who advocate a change in the law may be right. The Government are not prepared to say that they are wrong or that we have a better solution to put before the House. Nor do we want to argue, despite the complexities, that this is a subject which is inherently unsuitable for private Members' legislation. We shall not therefore oppose the Second Reading. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and his sponsors will take comfort from that. If it is the wish of the House, we are prepared for the Bill to be considered in detail in Committee. However, having said that, it is right for me to put on record a number of the reservations which the Government have about legislating on privacy and the legislation before us.
Column 1342We must consider the role that the law should play in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester quoted extensively from Lord Ross and the minority report to the Younger Committee. However, I want to remind the House of the majority conclusion of that report. It stated :
"Privacy, however defined, embodies values which are essential to a free society. It requires the support of society as a whole. But the law is only one of the factors determining the climate of a democratic society"--
and that refers back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short)-- "and it is often only a minor factor. Education, professional standards and the free interplay of ideas and discussion through the mass media and the organs of political democracy can do at least as much as the law to establish and maintain standards of behaviour."
Mr. Cash : My hon. Friend may recall that I quoted from the Younger report, which stated unequivocally that the committee had concluded merely that on balance--in 1972--there was no need, as it saw it, for a general right of privacy. That appears to be a different question from the one with which my hon. Friend is dealing.
Mr. Renton : I do not believe that that is right. I am conscious that my hon. Friend stressed in his speech the use of the word "yet" in the Younger committee report, and that is a word that I too, would use. I shall come back to that later.
The committee went on to say that it saw risks in placing excessive reliance on the law to protect privacy and that, subject to some specific recommendations aimed at giving the law its due place in the protection of privacy, it saw no need to extend it further. It argued, especially against including any general right of privacy in our domestic law. It based its argument--the degree to which this has changed is questionable--in large part on the uncertain scope and unpredictable implications of a general right of privacy. In our judgment, a further consideration must be whether the creation of a new statutory right is likely in practice to give satisfactory redress to those whose privacy has been infringed. That is a question which must concern supporters of the Bill on both sides of the House, because the one thing that they want to see is satisfactory redress for those whose rights have been infringed.
That matter takes us straight into the question of legal aid for privacy actions. Under the Bill, the normal arrangements for civil legal aid would apply. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, I believe that his remarks were incorrect on that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) was right in his intervention. Legal aid is automatically available unless provisions are made to the contrary. It is a well-known fact, however, that legal aid is not available in defamation actions.
Mr. Browne : I understand that the Legal Aid Act 1988 enables the Lord Chancellor to extend legal aid to areas of the law by regulation. We should be pleased to see the Lord Chancellor do that. We are not precluding legal aid, but we have not included it in the Bill because we do not want to give officials the chance to hit it out of Parliament.
Mr. Renton : I listened carefully to my hon. Friend. I am not a lawyer any more than he is, but I know that the Lord Chancellor may, if he wishes, extend legal aid to categories that are currently exempted. Those apart, the normal
Column 1343arrangements for civil legal aid will apply unless specific provisions are made to the contrary, which is a different point. Legal aid is not available in defamation actions, as litigation in that area can be expected to be--and certainly is--contentious and uncertain, and more likely than most other kinds of proceedings to prove trivial or ill-founded. Similar considerations might point to excluding legal aid from proceedings for breach of privacy under the Bill. Although the legal aid scheme seeks to exclude unmeritorious proceedings--that might be something else that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester had in mind --that is likely to prove especially difficult in actions for breach of privacy, and the availability of legal aid in such cases could be potentially expensive. We must recognise, therefore, that, as it stands, the Bill could have considerable resource implications because of the burden that it would impose on the legal aid fund, which was another point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North.
Mr. Quentin Davies : Does my hon. Friend agree that, if contingency fees are introduced--contrary to the restrictive practices currently upheld by the two sides of the legal profession--they would go a long way towards solving the problem and ensuring that, if the Bill becomes law, every citizen will have redress irrespective of his means, so long as he can persuade a lawyer that he has a sufficiently good case to represent him on that basis?
Mr. Renton : My hon. Friend leads me down an interesting path. From my experience as a commercial man in the United States, I have great sympathy with the idea of contingency fees. The possibility of extending that principle to either libel or invasion of privacy actions has yet to be explored. I accept, however, that it is an interesting idea.
My hon. Friends the Members for Winchester and for Stafford were right to remind the House that, by enabling actions to be taken in the county courts, costs are likely to be a good deal less than they would be in the High Court where fees are higher and cases tend to take longer to resolve. But we would be misleading ourselves to pretend that the cost of actions even in the county court may not be a serious deterrent for many would-be litigants.
Mr. John Browne : Is my hon. Friend saying that serious consideration by the Government about whether they should offer the individual citizen protection before the law, which would fill a serious existing gap--protection already approved of by the Government as a consequence of their international obligations--could be precluded because it might, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) said, have financial implications? Is that a serious reason to think ill of the Bill?
Mr. Renton : I am just about to discuss the interface between privacy and other areas of the law, which so far has only been commented upon by the hon. Member for Hillhead. One could argue that if it were commonly agreed that legal aid should be available for privacy actions--as the Bill is currently drafted there would be legal aid for such actions-- there is a consequential reason why that aid should also be available for libel actions.
Column 1344I shall explain what we see as the danger of legislating for privacy in isolation from other related areas of the civil law, in particular the link between privacy and breach of confidence and privacy and defamation.
Breach of confidence affords protection against the disclosure or use of information which is not publicly known and which has been entrusted to a person in circumstances imposing an obligation not to disclose or use it without the authority of the person imparting it. That action would therefore be available in some circumstances to which my hon. Friend's Bill would also apply. The Younger committee itself drew attention to the action for breach of confidence which it considered was potentially capable of affording greater protection to privacy than had hitherto been realised. The issue was subsequently referred to the English and Scottish Law Commissions, which have made proposals for changes to the existing law.
The interface between privacy and defamation is, in principle, yet more clear-cut. While my hon. Friend's Bill is concerned essentially with the disclosure of what is true, the essence of defamation is that it relates to statements that are both defamatory and false. But, that said, the injury inflicted by an invasion of privacy must bear a striking resemblance to the wrong for which a remedy is provided in the law of defamation. It is necessary therefore that the two should be considered in the same context. Proposals were made by the Faulks committee as long ago as 1975 for reforming the law on defamation but they have not found favour with successive Governments.
Mr. Cash : Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be absurd if a trivial libel were allowed because of the libel law, but, by the same token, there was no law to prevent a gross invasion of privacy? My hon. Friend has no argument about whether there should or should not be legal aid, because nobody would be likely to argue that, merely because of legal aid, there is no need for a libel law.
Mr. Renton : I am making a different point. If we are to go down this path it is right that the interconnection between and consequences on the law of libel and the law on breach of confidence should also be considered. I am not arguing--I believe that this is what my hon. Friends have suggested--that until everything can be done, nothing should be done. The best may be the enemy of the good, but I am concerned that in considering a possible new cause of action without being able to relate it properly to existing remedies--which may themselves be capable of restatement and improvement--the result may be that we produce overlapping and inconsistent provisions. The third general point concerns the difficult concept of privacy itself. One of the early chapters of the Younger report is entitled "What is Privacy?", but one does not have to read very far in the chapter to discover that the majority of the committee took the view that the concept of privacy cannot be satisfactorily defined. As the committee noted, attempts to do so either went very wide, equating the right to privacy with what Judge Cooley last century termed : "the right to be left alone",
or they boiled down to a catalogue of assorted values to which the adjective "private" or "personal" could reasonably, but not exclusively, be attached. Those who have sought in the past to legislate on the subject of privacy have varied considerably in the concepts of privacy for which they sought protection.
Column 1345Despite the short title of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has avoided any attempt to define privacy, but has based his proposed action on the unauthorised use or public disclosure of certain types of sensitive private information.
Mr. Lawrence rose --
Mr. Lawrence : Is not the whole point of our law that a number of concepts, such as negligence, have been developed by the courts and that definitions that, over the course of time, reflect the wishes of the people at the particular period have been worked out by the courts? The same could happen with the definition of privacy.
Mr. Renton : I accept my hon. Friend's point. However, obscenity is not a good example for those in favour of the Bill because of the reasons for reaching definitions in court. I shall come to the question of the courts' ability to construe general concepts, such as privacy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has found it necessary to define related concepts such as private information, personal and public use and disclosure. I do not believe--with all respect to my hon. Friend--that one can entirely avoid in that way the central problem of defining what the scope of privacy should be. The Justice committee, from whose report my hon. Friend produced an eloquent quotation, expressed well the difficulties that beset any attempt to find a precise or logical formula to circumscribe the meaning of privacy or to define it exhaustively.
The Justice committee suggested two reasons why the task was so intractable.
"First and foremost the notion of privacy has a substantial emotive content in that many of the things which we feel the need to preserve from the curiosity of our fellows are feelings, beliefs or matters of conduct which are themselves irrational. Secondly, the scope of privacy is governed to a considerable extent by the standards, fashions and mores of the society of which we form part and these are subject to constant change".
The Justice committee went on to suggest that one could identify a central area that consisted of certain matters which, at any given time, almost everyone would agree should be private and, therefore, protected from the intrusion of others. Surrounding that central area there was, it said, an outer grey area on which opinions would differ. But it had to admit that the extent both of the grey area and of the central area was bound to vary from time to time.
My hon. Friend would, I imagine, maintain that he has sought to do no more than give protection to specific matters of private information that would be generally agreed to form part of the central area identified by the Justice committee. But there is a further difficulty in his approach. Several categories of private information that his Bill identifies are themselves qualified by the word personal, such as personal communications, personal relationships, personal behaviour and personal financial affairs. Yet when we come to consider what is meant by the word "personal" in that context, the Bill tells us simply
Column 1346that it means by virtue of the private capacity of the individual. I have no better solution to suggest to my hon. Friend but the circularity of the argument is striking.
The balance between privacy and freedom of expression should properly greatly concern the House. Whatever the precise approach adopted for the purposes of legislation it is apparent that privacy cannot be an absolute right. As Younger said :
"A man's right to privacy has to be balanced against the rights of others ; any additional protection which the law may afford to privacy may be found to impinge upon such other rights, in particular the right of free communication of the truth and comment upon it, which are generally accepted as of great importance in a democratic society."
It is important to note that this balancing of rights is explicitly recognised in the European convention on human rights. Although article 8 of the convention to which my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester drew attention ; says :
"everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence".
article 10 must also be considered. It provides that : "everyone has the right to freedom of expression". That right includes,
"freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority."
Mr. John Browne : I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. In the example of the United States the first amendment, not the fifth, sixth of seventh amendment of the constitution, provides for free speech and a free press. How is it that the United States can live with the privacy law when its first amendment also has to be balanced in the same way as article 8 and 10 in the convention?
The House will agree that there is an inevitable tension between the individual's right of privacy and the right of a free press to investigate and report stories which are in the public interest. Clause 2(1) of the Bill recognises the fact that the public interest in securing the privacy of the individual may or may not be outweighed by the public interest in disclosure.
The question obviously arises as to who should decide whether the importance of a particular story should override personal privacy. Younger concluded that it was impossible to devise any satifactory yardstick for making such decisions, which had necessarily to be based on the circumstances of each case. The committee was in no doubt that the initial decision could be made only by those responsible for the publication, that is, by the press itself. The committee went on to consider whether, in performing this function, the press should be liable in case of complaint to be called to account by the courts acting under a law designed to protect personal privacy.
The difficulty that the committee saw, and which led it to reject this approach, was that judges would have to decide in each case between values which, in the abstract, might appear to have equal weight. The Committee thought that such a task would be likely to make the law
Column 1347uncertain, at least until the necessary precedents, covering a wide range of situations, had been established. It would also extend the role of the judiciary too far into determining controversial questions of a social and political character.
That leads me to the point about the ability of the courts to construe general concepts. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has sought to argue that reservations about the ability of the courts to determine matters of this kind are overstated, and that in practice the courts are frequently involved in balancing conflicting considerations such as these. In our view that overlooks the fact that questions of privacy will often involve a more complicated and subjective judgment than would be required in other contexts. The Younger committee put the point well when it said :
"Where in defamation cases a court has to decide what is or is not in the public interest, it is at least dealing with a situation in which a given statement is defamatory and untrue, and it is clear to the courts that such a statement will give rise to liability unless the defence of public interest is made out. But when for instance the right to privacy and the right to speak and publish the truth are in conflict, and no guidance is given on their relative importance, it is very doubtful whether a court is an acceptable arbiter on the issue of public interest involved".
I doubt whether there has been much change in that position over the last 15 years. I might add that we already have a good deal of experience of the uncertainties which arise, for example, in obscenity cases, where the courts have to make judgments on controversial matters where statutory definitions are unclear or unsatisfactory and there is no consensus on the difficult social and moral issues that arise.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : It seems to me that my hon. Friend, throughout his argument, has been equating things that are untrue and therefore libellous with things that are true, but nevertheless extremely hurtful and quite unnecessary.
Mr. Renton : That point is made very clear in Germany. There is an interlapping between the law on libel, and the remedies that are available under that law, and similar remedies, that would be provided if we were to have a law against the intrusion of privacy. That is an important point for the House to consider if the Bill goes into Committee.
There is the further point that the law is likely to prove a clumsy instrument for handling all but the most extreme instances of breach of privacy, and we cannot necessarily assume that resort to the courts would be particularly frequent. While this may not in itself be a disadvantage, it could well be many years before a relevant case law was built up and, in the meantime, the uncertainty that would exist in the law might lead to serious inhibitions on freedom of communication. What would tend to happen, I suspect, is that writs would be issued with the object of preventing publication, followed subsequently by the settlement of actions out of court without any clarification of the law having taken place. In any case, as Younger again remarked, it is
"questionable whether a topic which is subject to such rapid changes in social convention as privacy can suitably be regulated on the basis of case law, slowly built up, which would tend to reflect the values of an earlier period rather than of contemporary society."
The Government share the reservations expressed by Younger about the risks of bringing the courts into these matters. While we would not necessarily go all the way
Column 1348with those who argued before the Younger committee that the potential cost of possible action for invasion of privacy would severely inhibit the press from proper reporting, neither do we believe that legislation would necessarily, in practice, foster an increased sense of responsibility by the press.
I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford who referred to the deterrent value of the proposals. On the contrary, there could well be a danger of journalists and editors abandoning any idea of self-discipline and of treating anything as acceptable provided that it did not actually render them liable to legal action. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester that the Bill contains a positive bias in favour of publication where the issue is finely balanced, but I continue to believe that we should be wary of any legislative initiative which might undermine our long-established tradition of press freedom. Newspapers do not of course always strike the right balance between liberty and responsibility, but a press which at times outreached the bounds of decent behaviour--a point made by the hon. Member for Hillhead--may be a price that we have to pay for freedom of speech.
For those reasons, I have to continue to believe that the present system of voluntary self-regulation through the Press Council, a system endorsed by successive Royal Commissions on the press, is a more effective and appropriate form of control than would be provided by legislative action. The council has been criticised as weak and ineffective--
Mr. Renton : My hon. Friend warmly endorses that criticism. Certainly the concept of self-regulation has been under strain because of the attitude taken by some newspapers towards the council. No hon. or right hon. Member will deny that.
However, the council is concerned to improve its image and procedures. Sir Zelman Cowen, the council's former chairman, has been succeeded by Louis Blom-Cooper, who began work only this month, and whom we must all welcome to his challenging and difficult job. He has begun developing radical and imaginative ideas for reform. Mr. Blom-Cooper should be given the opportunity to make his influence felt, before we rush into action that could effectively undermine the future of press self-regulation.
I do not think that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton was right to say that Mr. Blom-Cooper implied that the time has come for the law to step in. On the contrary, Mr. Blom-Cooper pointed out, in a thoughtful article in The Times last Saturday : "If only the Press would be prepared to make self-regulation work by co-operating more fully with the work of the Press Council, privacy Bills like Mr. Browne's would be unnecessary."
-- [Interruption.] The House must remember that Mr. Blom-Cooper has been chairman of the Press Council for only four weeks.
I shall touch briefly on the subject of overseas experience of privacy legislation, as I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, that I would. He made the point, endorsed by other hon. Members, that it is nonsense to argue that there will be difficulties in introducing a right of privacy into British law, because a
Column 1349number of other countries have enjoyed such a right in their own legal systems for many years. France, Germany and the United States are frequently mentioned in that connection. Some critics go further and claim that our country is failing in its obligations under article 8 of the European convention on human rights in not introducing a corresponding provision into our own law.
I agree that we should pay close attention to the experience of other countries. However, it is well known that the method of adjusting domestic legislation to the requirements of international agreements differs widely beween signatory states, and that is particularly true of human rights. Younger identified two reasons why that is so. First, the committee pointed out that certain legal systems are readier than others to declare a general right and then leave to the courts the development of effective sanctions against violations of it. It may be simpler for countries with written constitutions to proceed in that way than it is for those such as Britain, without one.
The second relevant consideration for Younger was the extent to which existing laws in particular countries already provide sufficiently for the protection of the new right. Younger noted that in some countries where the law of defamation is less developed than it is here, new laws for the protection of privacy are used in cases that we regard as falling squarely within the ambit of defamation. In Germany, for example, the dividing line between privacy and defamation is very blurred.
We should not underestimate the considerable extent to which privacy is already protected by existing British law. It may be said that we already have what are, by international standards, very stringent laws of defamation, making it fairly risky to say anything, true of false, about someone who is prepared to resort to litigation to pursue his point.
So far, I have concentrated on general issues that must be addressed in connection with the Bill. None of them is necessarily decisive, but they all serve to explain why the Government have yet to be persuaded that creating a statutory right of action for breach of privacy is the proper course to take at present.