Human Rights Act Threatens Britain’s PCC, Chairman Warns

25 January 2002

The authority of Britain’s Press Complaints Commission – the body that oversees the self-regulation of the press – is under threat from the 1998 Human Rights Act, its chairman Lord Wakeham has warned.

The Act incorporates the European Convention of Human Rights, under which people have a “right to privacy”. However, says Wakeham, two recent court injunctions made under the act have raised the prospect of an unofficial national privacy law and a diminution of the PCC’s regulatory power at the hands of the courts.

In the first instance, Michelangelo and Rina Attard took the Manchester Evening News to court to prevent the paper publishing photos of their conjoined twins.

Under the 1998 Act, courts can only grant injunctions if they have considered such factors as freedom of expression and whether it breaks the PCC’s own code. This was one of the safeguards built into the legislation to protect the regulator’s power.

In the Attards’ case, the judge granted the injunction, ruling that the MEN was in breach of the code. However, Lord Wakeham said the PCC found differently, arguing that Mr and Mrs Attard had forfeited their right to privacy by selling photos to other papers.

“When the government introduced section 12 of the Human Rights Act, it made clear the importance of the newspaper industry's own self-regulation, and of the PCC, rather than the courts in establishing whether or not the code was breached,” he stated.

“There is great potential danger if the courts seek to place themselves in the position of the commission, especially if they are granting injunctions restraining publication on the basis of an interpretation of the code which can only be, at best, perfunctory.”

Also of concern to Wakeham is an injunction granted to a footballer whose extra-marital indiscretions were to be revealed by the Sunday People, a case that is due before the court of appeal next month.

“There seems to be great weight in the argument of those who say the injunction is an unacceptable infringement on press freedom and freedom of expression,” he declared. “This is not a precedent that can be allowed to stand.”

Although he added that the Human Rights Act had not affected self-regulation as greatly as previously feared, Wakeham called for sections of the legislation preserving the autonomy of the PCC to be given “full force”.

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