‘The new law of privacy is strangling the free press’
The Times/Matrix Chambers debate on privacy
30 Apr 09

This is a guest post by Katriona Lewis

Tuesday night saw an interesting debate hosted by The Times and Matrix Chambers on the motion ‘The new law of privacy is strangling the free press’. Times editor James Harding, acting as chair, opening proceedings by declaring this a ‘landmark week’ for journalism following the opening of family courts to the press.

First to argue for the motion was former editor of The Times Sir Simon Jenkins, who said the line was blurred on what constituted ‘intrusion’, and claimed that new privacy laws would serve to protect the rich and powerful. Sir Simon said that we already have good protections in place: ‘In the UK we have good laws on libel. You can’t tell lies about people but you can tell the truth.’

‘What tosh,’ columnist Matthew Parris countered. He explained that he sees privacy law as ‘clarification of what is, and what is not, an individual’s (not unconditional) right to privacy’.

Index on Censorship trustee Sir Ken Macdonald QC was next to speak for the ‘yes’ side, arguing that the law would engender too much caution in editors. ‘It would be good to extinguish gossip, but not to leave the powerful alone,’ he suggested, while expressing concerns that we are moving slowly towards French and Italian legal models. In contrast to Harding’s earlier positive declaration, Sir Ken warned that ‘it’s a very unhappy time for us to be placing whole categories of reporting into a box named “forbidden”.’

Next, former Tory MP Edwina Currie characterised the information she believes we must know, such as politicians’ expenses being exposed through the Freedom of Information Act. Ultimately Ms Currie conceded that there is no ‘perfect balance’ between Article 8 and Article 10 for the entitlements of privacy and press freedom.

Former Sun editor David Yelland was last to stand for the motion, attesting to the feeling that editors are ‘less free to do their jobs’ since he left the Sun in 2003, and are now horribly constrained by potential legal costs.

At the beginning of the evening, facilitator Conor Gearty counted a show of hands in the audience which indicated that the majority disagreed with the motion. A closing vote saw a slight shift in views, and Professor Gearty concluded that those against the motion had won the debate, ‘but those for won the argument’.