Privacy under a future Conservative government

In the wake of Jeremy Hunt’s proposals to breathe life into our struggling media industry, it is time for much wider scrutiny into what a Conservative government might mean for journalism.

We now know that Mr Hunt would preside over an emasculation of present media ownership rules, whose stifling strictures have nevertheless seen 88.8% of all regional UK titles consolidated in the hands of 20 publishers.

Today’s Conservative proposals are more Big Bang than Peacock Committee – this policy will ruffle the feathers of anyone who values a truly pluralistic media.

But what of wider media policy – for example, how might privacy from media intrusion be protected under David Cameron’s Conservatives?

In terms of defending our liberty from an overbearing state, the Tories certainly talk a good talk on the perils of the surveillance state. Though it is telling that they have refused to rule out returning to New Labour’s Big Brother database in future.

Those currently in opposition who are most vocal on the general issue of personal liberty, David Davis and Dominic Grieve, are both very much at arms length from Cameron’s high command. News Corp., it is rumoured, dealt the killer blow to Grieve’s Home Office aspirations, while Davis will forever represent a threat to Cameron’s leadership, more so if Cameron fails to appease the right of his party on Europe.

Events in Europe may yet come to influence our privacy from media intrusion under a Conservative government. Cameron’s pragmatic compromise to the right of his party, following the signing of The Lisbon Treaty, included revisiting a long standing pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. This policy declaration aired at conference, could yet have unforetold consequences on how our privacy is protected

A glance at the historical development of The PCC’s Code of Practice is instructive here:

(1998) The new wording for the privacy clause, which became Clause 3, was for the first time drawn largely from the European Convention on Human Rights, which the government had by this time pledged to incorporate into British law. It also significantly altered the definition of a private place, which now included both public and private places ‘where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy’. There had been concern that the previous Code had been far too tight in its definition of privacy and would not have protected someone from intrusion who was, for example, in a church or at a discreet table in a restaurant.

When it comes to press intrusion in the UK, the scope of our privacy is contingent upon definitions set out in the Human Rights Act.

If a future Conservative government were to repeal the HRA, there would be no moral impetus to continue with the current definition as set out in the PCC Code. Privacy in the UK would be defined, if defined at all, in a proposed Bill of Rights. In drawing up such legislation, a Conservative government would find no shortage of input from some quarters of the press.

Paul Dacre, chairman of the committee which draws up the PCC’s Code, is a long-standing opponent of both privacy and human rights legislation, describing such protections as ‘wretched’. His approach is an attack on those who challenge his right to enforce Victorian values on the public. This might play well to his readership, but does little for our right to privacy from needless tabloid intrusion.

Meanwhile, The Sun fights against the the HRA in a way which its readers can instantly relate to. Their ‘Give us back our human rights‘ campaign segues nicely into the bonkers bureaucrats in Brussels meme which permeates much of its take on the news.

There will be no support for continuing with HRA definitions in the PCC Code from these quarters. But their perspective on this policy area will be served from within a Cameron administration.

Cameron’s press secretary Andy Coulson, a former editor of the Sun’s Bizarre column and close friend to Dominic Mohan and Rebekah Brookes, will be mindful of just how important it is not to be too prescriptive when it comes to defining the public interest in the regulation of tabloids. This issue caused his political master acute personal embarrassment earlier in the year.

Whether or not he has further questions to answer, it is beyond doubt that Coulson slept through presided over a shameful, and illegal lapse in journalistic ethics while editor of the News of the World. Might we see this lapse in judgement revisited in the Tories’ laissez faire media model?

In terms of wider media policy, we know that Cameron plans to strip Ofcom of its policy-making powers, a move Labour (and some others) have suggested represents a quid pro quo for The Sun’s backing in the run up to election. In the event of a Conservative victory, we will be entering an era of slimmed down self-regulation across all media, which will foster further concentration of ownership, consolidating the power of some figures further still.

Of course no matter who gets in at the next election, until politicians of all colours can be seen to have regained the trust some of them squandered on second home allowances, press self-regulation remains off the political radar.

Nevertheless, the signs are that the defence of our privacy will be a significant challenge in the event of a future Conservative government.

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