Nothing to Fear?

EDITORS AND proprietors have nothing to fear from the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, the London Freelance Branch meeting on 9 February at the House of Commons heard from Mike Jempson, Executive Director of Press Wise. "All we are talking about is incorporating a convention which Britain was signatory to more than 40 years ago," he told the meeting on Privacy and Press Freedom. "We are not talking about a blanket privacy protection bill. Most of us would agree with it," said Mike, an NUJ member who set up PressWise in 1993 to help victims of the Press.

"Lord Wakeham of the Press Complaints Commission is being used to challenge the Convention, suggesting it is a villains' charter," continued Mike, "but in fact we should be welcoming it." The European Convention asserts citizens' rights to a private life - and Mike is satisfied that the public interest defences it includes mean it will not be used as a muzzle. "What it doesn't do is give proprietors the right to make money out of people's misfortunes," he said, "because it gives people the right to be compensated. That's why there is so much hostility to it from media owners." He dismissed the suggestion that the Convention was a lawyers' gravy train, pointing out that they do very nicely as things are.

This view was contested by Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who pointed out that with Bills on Human Rights, Data Protection, Public Interest Disclosure (whistleblowers) and Freedom of Information all due in the next two years, there will be plenty of work for lawyers in sorting out the inevitable conflicts between these disparate pieces of legislation: "We are in for a very confusing couple of years." Maurice was upbeat about the content of the Government's White Paper on Freedom of Information which "was surprising in its content." It goes much further than comparable legislation in some other countries, covering not just government but privatised utilities and contracted-out functions. "It also covers unrecorded information. That is, it will prevent officials avoiding liability by not writing information down. In fact," he said, "it gives me the right to know what is going on inside a civil servant's head!"

On the downside, there were large areas of exemptions including defence, law enforcement, information given in confidence and internal policy advice. But the right for a body to withhold information would only be granted if they could prove that "substantial harm" would result from the information being disclosed. The working of the law would be in the hands of an Information Commissioner and not the courts.

Freelance investigative journalist Tessa Mayes, who has questioned 50 editors, photographers, media lawyers and journalists on the issues of press freedom and privacy legislation, told the meeting that "Generally all my interviewees have said it will not be ordinary people who will benefit. It is the rich who will benefit from privacy laws."

A number of members expressed the view that the Union ought to take a greater rôle in the control of the activities of its members and broad support was expressed for the idea of a Union body to regulate the media. However, the meeting found the wording of Motion Five of the ADM agenda, which calls for a new commission to oversee the Press, contradictory - and mandated the LFB delegation to vote against it. The meeting did endorse the motion which calls on the NEC to work against all limits on freedom of expression.

BY Steve Wilkinson

Mar/Apr 1998

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