Tribune leader, 15 January 1993
For a change, the editors of the Sun and the Sunday Times are right. The new report on the press by Sir David Calcutt QC, widely leaked in last Sunday’s papers, makes recommendations that, if implemented, would seriously undermine the ability of the press to do the job it should do in a free society.
The most dangerous proposal is that the Press Complaints Commission be replaced by a new tribunal, consisting of a judge (appointed by the Lord Chancellor) and two lay assessors” (appointed by the Heritage Minister), with powers to impose big fines on newspapers if they breach a statutory code of conduct.
The press is already over-deterred from tackling the rich and powerful by the costs of defending libel actions (to say nothing of the size of libel damages); it is already over-constrained by Britain’s ludicrous secrecy laws. A government-appointed body with powers to decide what constitutes proper journalistic practice and to penalise newspapers that do not conform is an affront to democracy. It should be opposed in Parliament and, if that does not work, its findings should be ignored by editors.
Other parts of the new Calcutt report are less worrying. Nevertheless, new criminal offences covering trespass, long-distance photography of people on private property and electronic surveillance could have a significant impact on investigative journalism, even if a “public interest” defence is allowed. They too should be vigorously opposed.
This is not to claim that the attitude of the British press to privacy is blameless. But the breaching of privacy is not the press’s main fault, nor are the Calcutt measures the best way of dealing with it.
There have been far fewer breaches of privacy than is popularly believed and the most famous (from Virginia Bottomley’s love-child to the “Squidgy” tapes) have involved public figures whose private lives are relevant to their public positions. Far more important than breaches of privacy are the concentration of press ownership, the lack of political diversity in the national press and the political bias, cultural prejudice and trivialisation that characterise the tabloids – none of which figure in Calcutt
In any case, the costs of clamping down on press breaches of privacy, in terms of preventing exposure of real wrongdoing, are far greater than any supposed benefits: press freedom is more important than privacy. The Calcutt report should be spiked without further ado.
Much the same goes, unfortunately, for Clive Soley’s Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill. Mr Soley is a decent and honourable man, and the idea behind his proposal, that newspapers and magazines should correct inaccuracies in reports, is a worthy one. The problem is the means proposed by Mr Soley to secure this end: the imposition on editors of a duty to correct inaccuracies, with a statutory, lay-dominated Independent Press Authority being given the power to adjudicate contested cases and, in the last resort, to take miscreants to court.
If Mr Soley’s bill became law, it would give another weapon to the nuisances and bullies who currently use the threat of libel proceedings to extract apologies from newspapers that have done nothing worse than annoy or embarrass. It should be opposed by all supporters of a free press.