HL Deb 12 May 2004 vol 661 cc273-5

2.55 p.m.

Lord McNallyasked Her Majesty's Government:

Following the recent ruling by the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary in the case of Campbell v MGN Limited, whether they have any plans to introduce a privacy law.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, the Government have always said that it is for the courts to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the right to privacy. The judgment vindicates the Government's view and we have no plans to introduce a statutory privacy law.

Lord McNally

My Lords, is not the implication of that Answer that we are to have a privacy law in a back-door, ad hoc way, which will do great damage and cause great confusion to both the public and the media? Would it not be far better to have a privacy law which could be scrutinised—there could be pre-legislative scrutiny by Parliament and full public debate, which would set both the public and the media on a proper basis—rather than to go the way we are, which is the way to confusion?

Lord Filkin

No, my Lords. The Human Rights Act already requires the courts to protect people's right to respect for their private and family lives. Furthermore, over recent years a range of statutory provisions have enhanced that. I refer to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Data Protection Act 1998 in addition to the common law remedies available of defamation, nuisance and breach of confidence. There is never a simple answer to where press freedom or freedom of speech ends and the individual's protection of their privacy starts. That is why the courts have to strike that balance and make that judgment on the individual facts and circumstances.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, having spent 14 years as chairman of the Newspaper Publishers Association perhaps I may add an example of one area that might be considered as rising above the others. In my personal view, harassment of any person who seeks treatment for a serious drug problem is unacceptable.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I shall not go into the detail of the Appellate Committee's judgment—it is available in the Library of the House for those who want to inspect it—but it is relevant to this Question. It was never in contention on this case whether it was legitimate for the Mirror newspaper to publish the fact that the defendant, Naomi Campbell, took drugs. The reason it was never in contention was because she had made it clear publicly and promoted the fact that she did not take drugs. That is why that issue was never in contention. What was in contention were the ancillary issues around that.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I respectfully support the attitude of the Minister, bearing in mind that since very early times the privacy law of England and Wales has been adjusted according to the social circumstances in a way that has been found very effective.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I always make it a point of policy never to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, especially when he is complimenting me.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is it not about time that we had a press ombudsman? Not everyone can afford to go to the courts. The only redress they can aim for is through the Press Complaints Commission, which is widely seen as being under the domination of the media and in any event does not award compensation. Is it not about time that we had an ombudsman so that people could seek compensation and some sort of redress?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, ombudsmen do not normally award compensation. They normally make a finding of fact. Nevertheless, my noble friend raises an important issue; that is, while the law may be sound, is there effective access to justice for people who feel that they have been mistreated by the media? There are two points in that respect. The PCC deals with some 2,500 complaints each year. In its evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee it asserted that it achieves resolution in 95 per cent of those cases. Furthermore, conditional fee agreements appear, at least in the view of Carter-Ruck, to be working in this respect as a mechanism for bringing to court cases where people feel that they have been wrongly infringed by the media. Therefore, obviously we keep the issue under review, but it would be foolish to think that there was a simple answer.

Lord Acton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the American law of privacy? Is he aware that my American law professor wife has written an altogether admirable book called Invasion of Privacy on the subject? Over the years, in the interests of education and inter-party harmony in exchanges in your Lordships' House, I have had to ask her to send copies to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and even the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. If I can help to educate them, would it help the Minister if I got my wife to send him a copy?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the short answer is no, I do not know my noble friend's friend, but I am certainly open to education as he offers.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, the freedom of the press is a fundamental democratic right and should be safeguarded. Does the Minister therefore agree that a privacy law may simply serve to protect those in a financial position to seek legal redress and in that sense may prove to be elitist?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, that is interesting; it is possible. At heart, one of the reasons why the Government do not believe that a specific privacy law would assist is that it would put into statute what is already effectively in statute through the Human Rights Act. It would have to say to the court, "Strike a balance between freedom of speech, under Article 10, and the privacy of the individual as I quoted". Therefore, it would not take us much further forward. They are important issues, but the courts are well placed to decide on them.

Lord McNally

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the study by Professor Ian Hargreaves of Cardiff University, which showed that about 10 per cent of the public believed what they read in the Sun? Is not the biggest danger to the freedom of the press a press that was itself held in contempt because of its deplorable standards?

Lord Filkin

No, my Lords, I was not aware.