Public inquiries into privacy and press regulation

10 July 2011. Published by Keith Mathieson, Partner

BBC Radio 4's PM programme's 'Privacy Commission' has finished hearing evidence and will presumably be publishing its report shortly.

Its terms of reference include "the recommendation of measures which may increase public confidence in media reporting in the UK and the protection of individuals' privacy".

The report of the PM Privacy Commission - further details here - will of course have no legal status and if Parliament and the media wish to ignore it, they will be free to do so.  The 'Commission' can hardly claim (and does not claim) to have conducted a comprehensive review of the subject and it has taken 'evidence' from only 17 people.  Nonetheless, it has heard from people with interesting perspectives based on differing experiences and its report should provide a useful contribution to the current debate about whether the protection of people's privacy requires greater regulation of the media.

The PM website contains links to transcripts of the evidence provided by its 17 witnesses, who include editors, lawyers, regulators and individuals who have been affected by media intrusion.  The members of the Commission are Sir Michael Lyons, former chairman of the BBC Trust, Baroness Liddell, a former Labour minister, and Lord Faulks, a Conservative peer who is also a practising QC.

Two new official inquiries

In deciding to investigate and produce a report on privacy, the PM programme has been ahead of the game.  This week, the Prime Minister was prompted by the phone-hacking scandal to announce that he would be setting up two inquiries.  The first will look into the phone-hacking scandal itself, including "why the first police investigation failed so abysmally", but it will also examine "what was going on at other newspapers".  This inquiry will be led by a judge empowered to take evidence under oath.  The "bulk" of the work of this inquiry will be done only after the conclusion of the police investigations.  (There are two current investigations: Operation Weeting into phone-hacking based on documents seized in 2006 and Operation Elveden into alleged corruption of police officers based on documents just handed over by News International which show that "inappropriate" payments may have been made to a "small number" of police officers.)

The second inquiry will "look at the culture, practices and ethics of the British press", in particular "how our newspapers are regulated".  The Prime Minister has said this inquiry should begin as soon as possible and should be conducted by a "credible and independent panel of figures who command the full support, respect and above all confidence of the public" whose only motive is to "seek the truth and clean up the press".  It will be intriguing to see which individuals are considered to possess these special attributes - presumably the sort of people who serve as "public" (i.e. non-press) members of the Press Complaints Commission.  Such individuals may be looking for new positions now that the Prime Minister has in effect abolished the PCC by declaring it "ineffective", "a failure" and "completely absent" in the phone-hacking case.  Or perhaps, as the PCC's public statement suggests, they still consider the PCC has a healthy future.  In this, they are likely to prove mistaken, whatever the past successes of the PCC may have been.

See further chapter 11 of The Privacy Law Handbook

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