Former justice secretary Jack Straw has urged Parliament to amend the Human Rights Act to include a tort for breach of privacy.
“I think parliament needs to take this job on now,” Straw told the Leveson Inquiry today, adding that doing so would send a message to the public that they had “the right to have their privacy protected”.
Echoing his 2011 Gareth Williams memorial lecture, Straw said that legislating on privacy has gone ”through a side door” by relying on the HRA. There is no current tort on privacy in English common law, though section 12 of the HRA says that a court must regard the extent to which a media defendant has complied with “any relevant privacy code”.
Straw, who was Home Secretary from 1997-2001 and Foreign Secretary from 2001-2006, also claimed self-regulation of the press had “palpably failed” and that regulation with statutory underpinning was the only means of compelling newspaper groups to join into a system.
“If you leave it to self-regulation we will end up with the absurd situation where they [the press] are judge and jury in their own courts,” Straw said, adding that the press “can’t go on claiming every other institution in the land needs external regulation” while it continues to regulate itself.
However he dismissed counsel Robert Jay QC’s suggestion of the possibility of state control in newspaper content as “nonsensical”.
Straw flagged newsroom culture as an area of concern, adding that the press needed to be “more examining of what they are doing” and that the Inquiry itself provided a “mirror” for journalists.
“With luck, there’ll be continuing momentum for change,” Straw said, contradicting former Downing Street spin doctor Alastair Campbell’s more pessimistic view that there was “no appetite” for media reform.
He accused the British press of being “Quixotic”, telling Leveson: “one day you’re best thing since sliced bread, next your paternity is being questioned by the same newspaper”.
He added that there was a degree of “voyeurism” among some sections of British journalism that took “no account of the responsibility of decision-making” and that there was a “willful refusal” by the press to develop an understanding of how governance works. “They reduce it so much to personality and conflict,” Straw said, adding that newspapers had contributed to a culture in which politics is seen as boring or pointless.
The Inquiry is currently focusing on relationships between the press and politicians, with Straw revealing that, during his time in the Cabinet (1997 to 2010), some newspapers were gradually “being favoured by particular ministers”.
“They had these little groups,” he said, adding that it was “very incestuous and very unhealthy” and that both sides were to blame.
Straw said one of the reasons the Blair government was too close to some of the press was because of its involvement with them during their time in opposition, a relationship it carried into Downing Street when it came to power in 1997.
“Every politician wants to have the best relationship they can with the press,” Straw said, but warned one’s own position becomes “compromised” and it could “undermine your integrity” if relationships are too close.
The Inquiry continues tomorrow, with evidence from former Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans and journalist Peter Oborne.
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