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Column 439Thirdly, the situation that I have outlined is an additional reason for giving urgent consideration to introducing legislation that would cover the statutory right to privacy. In that sense. I support the thrust of the 1990 Calcutt report and of the most recent of his reports, which puts forward the idea of a new tort of invasion of privacy.
I have noted that that last proposal has attracted the support of the Select Committee on National Heritage in its fourth report on privacy and media intrusion, to which the Government are due to respond. That Committee's concern, and that of Calcutt, were primarily with regard to the press, but those same principles should apply in considering ways in which the people affected by television could be covered.
I cannot end without adding that I have tried, as far as possible, to stick to arguments of principle, despite deep feelings on this matter. Much might be said about a position that has clearly appalled even insiders in the industry. Having seen the ways in which programme makers can ride roughshod over the wishes of the families concerned--so that, as one family member has said,
"they are playing God with our lives"--
I am clear where the public interest lies in these matters. It must surely be in providing real checks and balances, and real deterrents and ways in which the sufferings of constituents, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North and myself may be avoided for others.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) on the persistence that has resulted in his getting a debate on this deeply serious and tragic subject. I have listened carefully to his concerns about the difficult and important subject of media intrusion into private lives.
As so many individual cases have shown, the line between a legitimate public interest in the issues involved, and the rights of individuals to privacy and fair treatment, is not a clear and definite one. That must be more so when the issues are presented as scripted drama, with the tensions of that genre highlighting individual circumstances, involving particular and identifiable people.
It is not for the Government to comment on the artistic merits of the drama "Beyond Reason". My hon. Friend will understand the long established convention that Government do not normally become involved in individual production or programming decisions. What the Government have done is to establish the independent Broadcasting Complaints Commission precisely to deal with the sort of problems raised tonight about this play.
The adjudicatory approach of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission allows persons affected by a broadcast, where they feel that they have suffered unfair treatment or an invasion of privacy, to make a complaint and receive a full hearing, legally represented if they choose. If their complaint is upheld, a summary will be published in the appropriate television programme guide, as my hon. Friend said, and the findings broadcast in a prominent position in an evening schedule.
My hon. Friend described this as a mere slap on the wrist, and I can well understand why he so described it, but the Government's intention was that the thorough
Column 440adjudication process should leave both sides with a better understanding for the future of where the boundaries lie. Broadcasters have, I believe, generally shown respect for issues of privacy. Of the 13 complaints made to the commission between April 1993 and March 1994, only one was fully upheld, and four were upheld in part. In the current year, the commission has dealt with 23 complaints of unwarranted invasion of privacy, of which three were upheld and one upheld in part.
The general programme code published by the Independent Television Commission, the BBC's producer guidelines and the Broadcasting Standards Council's code of practice all provide a sound framework within which the broadcasters consider to what extent they are entitled to use material that identifies individuals, or incidents from the recent past.
I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government intend at the earliest opportunity to merge the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. The Government, too, recognise the close relationship between their functions and believe that members of the public will appreciate the clarity that the merger will bring.
My hon. Friend suggested that it may be preferable to allow the regulatory bodies to preview controversial programmes. It is a very interesting idea, and I shall look at it closely. He may wish to have a meeting with me on the subject, so that we can pursue these matters at greater length than is possible during an Adjournment debate. The Government usually take the view that, in a mature society, censorship or prior restraint is undesirable and contrary to the right of free expression enshrined in the European convention on human rights. The approach adopted in this country--that of self-regulation by the broadcasters against a framework of guidelines and codes of practice--has always been considered the best way to balance the right to freedom of expression with considerations of taste, decency, privacy and fair representation. Viewers then have every opportunity to express their opinions on particular programmes, and can be seen to be influencing programming decisions themselves. If a commercial broadcaster persists in flouting the ITC's code--section 3.7 deals specifically with drama documentaries--the commission may impose financial sanctions, and ultimately withdraw the broadcaster's licence. The BBC is responsible, under the royal charter, for responding to similar complaints.
The Government are absolutely not complacent where issues of privacy are involved. As with the portrayal of sex and violence on television, we are currently looking closely into the matter of privacy. It is under review at the moment, as we recognise it to be an area of great concern across all forms of media production, written and audio-visual. We shall, before long, be publishing a White Paper on privacy and media intrusion, and it is, of course, possible in the light of this that the regulatory bodies may be prompted to clarify further, strengthen or otherwise change existing guidelines and codes of practice.
I noted my hon. Friend's observation that it is time for the enactment of a statutory right of privacy. In the light of the forthcoming White Paper, I cannot comment on that this evening, beyond what I have already said, but I have noted my hon. Friend's views. As I said, I should be extremely
Column 441keen to discuss the matter further with him and, indeed, with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Export Trade if he so wishes, given his close interest in the matter.
My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently on behalf of his constituents, whose daughter was depicted in the drama "Beyond Reason". I am told--indeed, my hon. Friend mentioned this in his speech--that the makers of the play, which I have not yet seen, in their introductory script, were acutely conscious of the topicality of the play's subject matter, of the need to take into account whether publication was in the public interest, and of the need for care and sensitivity in the treatment of the reconstruction
Column 442of the crime. However, having heard my hon. Friend's comments, I have asked my officials to get me a video of the film so that I can see it before I have the meeting, which I hope I shall have, with my hon. Friend.
I know that my hon. Friend has made a complaint on behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Squire to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, and that the commission has entertained his complaint. I can do no more tonight than to take note of his concerns, and to await that adjudication.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Ten o'clock.
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