Press standards, privacy and libel - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. A free press is a vital component of a healthy democracy. Our history shows, and current experience in many other countries confirms, that this freedom must not be taken for granted. It cannot be achieved without effort and sacrifice, nor preserved without vigilance. Long experience has also taught us that the freedom of the press has to be held in balance with other freedoms and rights, such as the right of citizens to privacy and to protection from libel. Moreover, the public has a right to expect high ethical standards in the press, so for more than half a century we have had press self-regulation in various forms. Freedom of the press is therefore a complex matter. Difficult balances must be struck, and since the cultural, legal, economic and technological context in which the press operates changes constantly, the balances change too. There are no once-and-for-all solutions; every age must maintain the balances as best it can.

2. This inquiry was prompted by concerns expressed by many, both inside and outside the industry, that the necessary balance was being lost. On the one hand, it was argued that the freedom to report was being unjustifiably curtailed, and on the other that press self-regulation was failing and standards were falling. These concerns related to a number of recent events and developments. Chief among the events were:

·  the successful prosecution of the News of the World by Max Mosley for breach of privacy;

·  the coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and its aftermath;

·  the critical United Nations Human Rights Committee's report on British libel laws and 'libel tourism';[1]

·  the reporting of suicides in Bridgend in 2007 and 2008;

·  Tesco's libel action against the Guardian in April 2008.

Longer-term developments which were seen to have placed new stresses on the press and press freedom include:

·  the rise of the internet;

·  the passage of the Human Rights Act, which has had a notable impact in privacy matters;

·  the growth in the use of conditional fee agreements (so-called 'no-win, no-fee arrangements') in libel proceedings;

·  moves in the United States to legislate to protect US citizens from the enforcement of libel judgments handed down in British courts;

·  the long-term decline in newspaper sales and the impact of recession.

3. Scrutiny of such matters has been a regular feature of the work of this Committee and its predecessor Committee. In 2003, our predecessors published the report Privacy and media intrusion[2] (discussed below at paragraph 58), and as recently as 2007 we published Self-Regulation of the press[3] (see paragraphs 548 and 549). In the light of the events and developments listed above, and the concerns they aroused, we felt the time was right for a wide-ranging inquiry embracing privacy, libel and standards in the press. Examining all these issues at once would give us an overview of the various balances between freedoms and rights that we could not achieve through piecemeal investigation.

4. We therefore launched our inquiry on 18 November 2008 with the following terms of reference:

·  To establish why the self-regulatory regime was not used in the McCann case, why the Press Complaints Commission had not invoked its own inquiry and what changes news organisations themselves have made in the light of the case;

·  Whether the successful action against the Daily Express and others for libel in the McCann case indicates a serious weakness with the self-regulatory regime;

·  The interaction between the operation and effect of UK libel laws and press reporting;

·  The impact of conditional fee agreements on press freedom, and whether self-regulation needs to be toughened to make it more attractive to those seeking redress;

·   The observance and enforcement of contempt of court laws with respect to press reporting of investigations and trials, particularly given the expansion of the internet;

·  What effect the European Convention on Human Rights has had on the courts' views on the right to privacy as against press freedom;

·  Whether financial penalties for libel or invasion of privacy, applied either by the courts or by a self-regulatory body, might be exemplary rather than compensatory;

·  Whether, in the light of recent court rulings, the balance between press freedom and personal privacy is the right one.

5. We received more than 170 written submissions from journalists, editors, lawyers and non-governmental organisations, as well as individuals who had experienced media intrusion and/or litigation. Between 24 February and 2 June 2009 we held ten public oral evidence sessions and one in private. We visited the Press Complaints Commission on 4 March and 13 October 2009, and the offices of the Sunday Mirror on 11 November 2009. We also took the opportunity to meet the Catalonian Press Complaints Commission and the editor and staff of La Vanguardia newspaper, during a visit to Barcelona which primarily focused on the Olympics, in February 2009, and travelled to America to hold meetings with lawyers, legislators, press representatives, authors and members of the UN Committee on Human Rights in Washington DC, Albany and New York from 29 March to 3 April 2009.

6. On 8 July 2009, after we had concluded oral evidence sessions, the Guardian reported that the publisher of the News of the World, News Group Newspapers, had paid £700,000 to settle legal actions brought by three individuals who alleged that they had been the victims of unlawful telephone message interceptions by the newspaper. The Guardian suggested that others, including Government ministers, may also have had their voicemail messages accessed.[4] Given the relevance of these allegations to our investigation of press standards, and their relation to our previous inquiry, we reopened oral evidence, holding a session on 14 July 2009 with the Guardian and the PCC and subsequently receiving oral and written evidence from representatives of the News of the World, the Metropolitan Police Service and others.

7. Each time, indeed, we sought to draw this enquiry to a close, fresh developments occurred which warranted examination and inclusion. In October, as Parliament reconvened, the use by an international oil trading company Trafigura of a so-called 'super-injunction' to suppress coverage of a toxic waste dumping scandal raised constitutional questions about the media's right, unfettered, to report questions in Parliament. Further controversial libel actions also occurred, on which we were sent written evidence. In November 2009, the PCC issued its own conclusions - based on evidence given to our inquiry - about the further phone-hacking revelations. In January 2010, Lord Justice Jackson's review of the costs of civil litigation concluded with the publication of his final report and the Ministry of Justice issued a specific consultation with recommended changes to conditional fee agreements (CFAs).

8. We would like to thank all those who wrote submissions, gave evidence and held meetings with us. We would also like to thank our specialist advisers for this inquiry, Professor Brian Cathcart of Kingston University for his specialist media knowledge and Sara John for her help on legal matters.[5]

1   United Nations Human Rights Committee, Sixth Periodic Report of the United Kingdom on the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), July 2008 Back

2   Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2002-03, Privacy and media intrusion, HC 458 Back

3   Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2006-07, Self-regulation of the press, HC 375 Back

4   "Revealed: Murdoch's £1m bill for hiding dirty tricks" - the Guardian, 8 July 2009 Back

5   For information on the interests of the Committee's advisers see the Committee's Formal Minutes 2009-10, Back

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Prepared 24 February 2010