George Eustice: Privacy debate must start now

The clash between the media, courts and Parliament over privacy and press freedom might force policymakers to enter an area that has been sidestepped for too long.

George Eustice: policymakers may be forced to debate privacy laws
George Eustice: policymakers may be forced to debate privacy laws

It's easy to blame judges. Whenever they attempt to set public policy through legal precedent, the result is usually a bit of a muddle. When such judgements draw their authority from international courts such as the European Court of Human Rights, that muddle is inevitably far worse.

But the courts have been dragged into this matter because governments of every colour have ducked it. There is never a good time for politicians to broach the topic of media standards. No party leader wants to risk the wrath of newspaper editors who guard the status quo with zeal. Tony Blair only delivered his 'feral beasts' speech days before he scurried out of Number 10.

Newspapers have continually pushed the boundaries of their 'public interest' defence. All too often 'public interest' has been interpreted as 'things that make an interesting read' rather than any notion of a common good, and the Press Complaints Commission has been found wanting. A few years ago when Ruth Kelly was named for sending her child to a private school, the PCC sent an edict to all newspapers telling them not to name her in order to protect the privacy of her child. Every newspaper complied except the Daily Mirror. But when a complaint was lodged, the PCC sided with the Mirror and against its earlier edict. It must be consistent when assessing the public interest test.

To give credit where it's due, the conduct of newspapers in protecting the privacy of children has generally improved in recent years. There is also not much wrong with the PCC code. It is simply not enforced with the same rigour as the Broadcasting Code, which is laid down in statute, enforced independently by Ofcom with tough sanctions for breaches. Proposals to bring newspapers under Ofcom were rightly abandoned as unrealistic. Perhaps the solution is to establish an independent appeals procedure above the PCC so that it starts to respect its own code.

George Eustice is Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth and a former press secretary to David Cameron

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