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5.45 pm

According to opinion polls, almost 90 per cent. of the public favour a privacy law. As The Guardian, my former employer, said, this is a type of privacy Bill: it is not solely about privacy, but while Lord Wakeham, as the watchdog, has been guarding the patio doors, a privacy Bill has slipped through the cat flap. I am very glad that it will be on the statute book.

I do not have an interest as such to declare, but I have an interest in that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and I have been, respectively, night lawyer and night reporter on The Guardian, and on many occasions we have been at the sharp end of the ethical dilemmas with which the Bill is intended to deal. It is 30 years since I first joined a national newspaper as a reporter. I--and many of my erstwhile colleagues--believe that, in that period, the ethical standards of the press have deteriorated alarmingly. Journalists are often portrayed as having no interest in the ethical standards of the press. It is true that, individually, they have an interest

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in winkling out the facts, however damaging they may be to the person concerned, but journalists collectively have an important interest in ensuring that their professional standards are maintained and that people's privacy, especially the privacy of ordinary people, is not invaded for purely commercial interests.

Many of my former journalist colleagues will welcome the clarity of the new clause and the fact that it establishes the law of privacy as coequal with the freedom of the press. It is many years since the former Secretary of State for National Heritage said that they were nearly calling time at the last chance saloon. When he said that in 1991, he presumably meant that it was about 10.50 pm. Successive Secretaries of State have put back that deadline time and again, even though the problems of privacy and freedom of the press have deteriorated. By my reckoning, it is now about half-past five in the morning. I am sure that the Bill will be the moment at which we say, "Time gentlemen, please" in the last chance saloon.

Mr. Grieve: I find myself facing this debate with welcome surprise. At the start of the Bill's progress through Parliament, it seemed to me that this would be the great dust up. On Second Reading, there were expressions of great concern about the freedom of the press, the way in which the convention would impinge on it and the dreadful consequences that might flow for the historic liberties of the fourth estate that were thereby threatened. It seemed to exercise the minds of quite a few of my colleagues. In the light of the Government's response, I thought that I would have to comment on the fact that the Government were giving way to pressure from the fourth estate--of a kind other than the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton)--and were tinkering with the European convention on human rights by incorporating it in an undesirable fashion.

I am the first to be delighted that, in new clause 13, the Government have done nothing of the kind. Indeed, it seems that, for some magical reason, that tremendous canard--if I may use the phrase--has finally been dispelled. The convention--with or without new clause 13, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) so perspicaciously identified--was never going to pose that extraordinary danger.

None the less, I welcome new clause 13, if only because it has succeeded in placating those who have made some of the more extreme comments about the way in which the convention will operate. The new clause is also wholly compatible with current practice, as my hon. and learned Friend correctly said. I do not think that it will tinker around with well-established principles--at least, I hope it will not.

The cosiness may be becoming too great, but I believe that, when the convention is incorporated--with the new clause to interpret it--it will provide a motor force for the gradual development of a law on privacy. I greatly welcome that, for precisely the reasons that have been cogently articulated by the hon. Member for Battersea and, in a very interesting speech, by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley). Privacy rights need to be protected in this country, and we need to be able to strike a balance. That balance must preserve the freedom of the press to expose hypocrisy and criminal activity, but it must ensure that photographs of young children whose mother was sent to prison by the

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grandmother's denunciation are not put on the front page. Those are precisely the excesses of press activity which a civilised society should abhor.

I have never believed that we need a privacy law, as I have always believed that, once the convention is incorporated, such a law will develop gradually and of its own accord--it will assume a civilised, measured and proper form. If it does not, doubtless Parliament will keep it under review--we may be able to help it on its way as and when necessary. I hope that such legislation will not be necessary, and that incorporation will focus minds on the balance between articles 8 and 10, which need to be reconciled if we are to remain a civilised society that respects the rights of individuals not to have their privacy wantonly trampled on.

I do not intend to take up much of the Committee's time. As I said, I had rather expected that I should have to remind the Government not to tinker around with the convention, but I am delighted that I do not have to. The Home Secretary is to be commended on new clause 13, which is well crafted, well reasoned and seems to meet the objections that were previously being raised. We shall keep the matter under review--it will be a subject of abiding interest to me and, I dare say, to a number of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. As time goes by, we shall have to see whether it is achieving the desirable aim that I believe it can achieve.

Mr. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): I want to make a few remarks about the way in which the new clause reconciles the rights to freedom of speech and to the protection of private and family life. Both rights are important. Freedom of speech, in a way, encapsulates our vision of democracy; it is essential to our democratic procedures. If we do not have freedom of speech, we cannot operate our democratic mechanisms. The protection of private life involves a range of concerns--our rights, for example, to individual autonomy, to reputation, to the protection of private information and to an individual name. Those are important rights, but, like all rights, they have to be qualified both when considered alone and, in some cases--as we are considering today--when they conflict.

New clause 13 represents a sensible way in which those different rights may be reconciled. It suggests that they can be balanced in a number of ways--various criteria are identified. That is especially helpful. English courts develop the law pragmatically and incrementally, but it is sometimes useful that they should have some guidance. New clause 13 provides guidance on reconciling those rights.

Our courts can gain some insight into how rights may be balanced by considering the experience of other countries. Even in the United States, the right to freedom of speech is qualified, although, under the first amendment, a much more absolutist view is taken of the right. Some Supreme Court judges, such as Justice Black, have indeed taken an much more absolutist view of freedom of speech than is taken by the European Court of Human Rights, but they, too, have recognised that, in some cases, the right has to be qualified.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has placed a brief summary of the European case law in the Library. The point that I think he was making with the case

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extracts is that, in most cases, the European Court of Human Rights has given primacy to the right to free speech. The extracts suggest, on the whole, that the article 10 right will trump other rights. We know that from the case law that has arisen from this country. The Sunday Times thalidomide case some 25 ago years showed that the contempt proceedings against the newspaper could not be upheld under article 10. In the "Spycatcher" case, which has been mentioned, the court made the important point that dangers were inherent in the prior restraint of freedom of speech. More recently, in the Goodwin case, the court made an important point about the protection of journalistic sources.

Mr. Garnier: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but he will not want the Committee to conclude from his remarks that articles 8 and 10 do not allow for prior restraint. Paragraph 2 of article 10 and paragraph 2 of article 8 show that there are exceptions. Indeed, one of the problems of the convention is that it is as much a list of exceptions as it is of rights. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will not move from this point without addressing his mind to the exceptions--including the allowances to prior restraint--that are contained in the articles.

Mr. Cranston: The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right--the rights are qualified. Indeed, as I said at the outset, rights are always qualified. We are considering how the new clause can deal with a conflict between two rights. I shall come back to some of his remarks, as I do not agree that the new clause achieves nothing.

We tend to ignore the jurisprudence of the German courts, but they have, for many years, balanced the right to free speech with the right to privacy.

My friend and former colleague Professor Markesinis has published some lengthy discussions of the German case law. He points out that the German courts have developed sophisticated methods of balancing the two rights. For example, they distinguish between speech that informs, and speech that is mere gossip. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) alluded to that distinction when he castigated some of his former colleagues.


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