The Press Complaints Commission may have won the confidence of the Government and public but could lose the battle for self-regulation in the courts, PCC privacy commissioner Professor Robert Pinker has warned.
Pinker, speaking at the Newspaper Society’s editorial law seminar, said the nature of threats to self-regulation in the UK had changed over the past 10 years. At one time it was the Government threatening statutory laws to control the press; now it is celebrities seeking actions for alleged breaches of their privacy under the Human Rights Act.
"Throughout the early Nineties, in the parlance of boxing journalism, relations between the industry and the Government were seriously confrontational," Pinker said. "Press self-regulation spent most of those years on the ropes at constant risk of a spectacular and statutory knock-out."
He said relations with the Government had changed for the better but added: "The threats to the future of self-regulation today come from different sources and are likely to develop in a less dramatic way. In the new context of recent human rights legislation, it is far more probable that they will take effect through a gradual process of judicial attrition.
"The institutions of press self-regulation will not suffer a spectacular knock-out.; they will simply be taken through the courts, round by round, to a comprehensive but scarcely noted defeat on points." Westmorland Gazette editor Mike Glover raised the problems caused to local newspapers by the way the Human Rights Act was interfering with the reporting of local events, including crimes and accidents.
Glover said he believed the public was unsympathetic to the demands of the national press to be able to publish stories such as the extra-marital affairs involving a Premiership footballer.
"Any attempts by the media to protect more legitimate lines of communication, facts like names and addresses, is undermined by the national picture," he claimed.
One of the top correspondents on The Sunday Times has "almost certainly" had his phone tapped, Alastair Brett, legal manager of Times Newspapers, told the seminar.
But he said the 1989 Official Secrets Act effectively prevented disclosure of telephones being tapped by the security services. He asked: "How many other journalists involved in investigations are having their phones tapped?" Brett said the Ministry of Defence was trying to get stories stopped by taking action against employees and former staff under the law of confidence, which left sources vulnerable to legal action rather than newspapers themselves.
Geraldine Proudler, of law firm Olswang, warned that the growth of conditional fee agreements could have a big impact by pushing up costs for newspapers losing legal actions. Because lawyers were considered to be taking a risk with the "no-win, no-fee" agreements it means they can claim a premium of up to 100 per on their fees if they succeed, she said.
Proudler also warned newspapers they could be sued for articles on their websites as well as in print. Her advice was to take articles off the web as soon as a complaint was made that a story might be defamatory.
by Jon Slattery