Statutory definitions of privacy and public interest would not clarify the law according to Committee

27 March 2012

Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions publishes report indicating that the PCC successor must be independent, and have more powers, and that if industry fails to establish an effective regulator, statutory oversight should be considered

In a report published today, Tuesday 27 March 2012, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions says Parliament should not introduce any new privacy statute. It concludes that in weighing the competing rights to privacy and freedom of expression, each case must be judged on its own merits. The bar for limiting freedom of expression must be set high, but the Committee says that the courts are now striking a better balance in dealing with applications for privacy injunctions. It rejects criticism that privacy law has been "judge-made", noting that it evolved from the Human Rights Act.

The Committee says the most important step towards improving protection of privacy is to provide for enhanced regulation of the media. The Press Complaints Commission lacked the power, sanctions or independence to be truly effective. Substantial changes to press regulation are needed to ensure that it encompasses all major news publishers including, in time, major bloggers.

The reformed regulator should:

  • Have access to a wider range of sanctions, including the power to fine;
  • be cost-free to complainants
  • be able to determine the size and location of a published apology, and the date of publication
  • play a greater role in arbitrating and mediating privacy disputes

The body dealing with complaints should include representatives who have experience of working in the print media, but should not include any full-time employees of news publishers or individuals who have a demonstrable conflict of interest.

To make self-regulation work, all publishers must sign up to the new regulator. One possible mechanism the Committee suggests is for advertisers to agree to advertise only in publications that are members of the press regulator and subscribe to its rules.

A standing commission comprising members of both Houses of Parliament should be established to scrutinise industry-led press reforms and to report on them to Parliament. If the industry fails to establish an independent regulator which commands public confidence, the Government should seriously consider establishing some form of statutory oversight. This could involve giving Ofcom or another body overall statutory responsibility for press regulation, the day-to-day running of which it could then devolve to a self-regulatory body.

The Committee says that major internet corporations should take active steps to limit the potential for breaches of court orders through use of their products and, if they fail to do so, legislation should be introduced to force them to. In addition, the Attorney General should be more willing to bring actions for civil contempt of court in respect of injunctions being breached online.

It also concludes that parliamentarians should ensure that material subject to an injunction is only revealed in Parliament when there is good reason to do so. Gratuitous or repeated revelation of such information could lead to new parliamentary rules to prevent it. The media must be legally protected when reporting Parliament, and so qualified privilege should apply to the reporting of all proceedings in Parliament.

John Whittingdale MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"The Committee spent some time debating whether additional laws to clarify the right to privacy were necessary or desirable. However, we concluded that the existing position, where each case is judged by the courts on an individual basis, is now working reasonably well.

We are concerned that individuals with grievances about invasion of privacy should have an alternative to costly legal action available to them. It is clear that media self-regulation under the PCC did not work. We therefore wish to see a stronger self-regulatory system that is seen to be effective and commands the confidence of the public.  The PCC’s successor must have teeth; it must be truly independent of the industry; it must incorporate all major news publishers. Parliament should have a central role in scrutinising the process of media reform. If it is judged that the new body is not proving effective, statutory oversight of the media regulator should be seriously considered."

Further information

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