No privacy laws, but the media must behave, say MPs
Frances Gibb, Legal Editor
Newspapers and broadcasters run the risk of increased damages in privacy actions if they fail to tell people they will be exposing them, MPs say today.
But the Culture, Media and Sport Committee has come down against making prior notification mandatory, as sought by Max Mosley, the former chief of Formula One. The MPs also rule out legislation on privacy but urge a new fast-track procedure to allow temporary injunctions on stories.
The media should also have a new statutory “public interest” defence to protect responsible investigative journalism and would not have to tell the subject of a story in advance if there was a pressing public interest not to do so, the MPs say.
The proposals are part of a package of reforms drawn up by the committee under John Whittingdale. Many media organisations had feared they would lead to privacy laws, but Mr Whittingdale said: “A healthy democracy requires a free press. It is essential that newspapers should be able to report and comment on events, public figures and institutions, to be critical of them and to be a platform for dissenting views. At the same time the press must be seen to uphold certain standards, to be mindful of the rights of those who are written about and, as far as possible, be accurate in what they report.”
There was increasing evidence that investigative journalism was being deterred by the threat and cost of defending libel actions, he added, which was a “matter of serious concern”. Mr Whittingdale said: “There is a growing clamour of voices calling for reform of our libel laws in order to reduce the cost of mounting and defending libel actions. Until this is addressed, it will continue to have a stifling effect on press freedom and the Government should now act swiftly to do so.”
The report’s recommendations were aimed at reducing the cost of libel actions and “tipping the balance, which has tipped too far in favour of the plaintiff. At the same time, we want to see the self-regulatory system under which the press operates strengthened, to increase its credibility and ensure that standards are maintained.”
The MPs also call for urgent action to curb “libel tourism” , including discussions between the Lord Chancellor and US law authorities. Where defendants in libel actions do not live or work in Britain, there should be extra hurdles before they are allowed to mount a claim, the committee says.
Mr Whittingdale said: “We remain of the view that self-regulation of the press is greatly preferable to statutory regulation. However, the Press Complaints Commission as it currently operates is widely viewed as lacking credibility and authority.
“To counter this, we believe that it must be seen to take a far more active role in ensuring that standards are upheld and that it should have the power to impose financial penalties on newspapers that breach the PCC code.”
Rules for reporting
*No legislation on privacy
*Press Complaints Commission to recommend prior notification to the subject of articles, subject to a “public interest” test
*A new law to clarify Parliamentary privilege and ensure free and fair reporting
*The burden of proof should be reversed in the case of big corporations so that they must prove libel and not the defendant
*Action to curb the use of super-injunctions and research to discover the extent of their use
*A new regulator, a Press Complaints and Standards Commission, with powers to fine and halt publications