Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Call for 'gag shambles' law change

Lord Wakeham said the Human Rights Act must be amended to end the 'shambles' of judges gagging papers

The former head of the press watchdog has insisted that the Human Rights Act must be amended urgently to end the "shambles" of judges gagging newspapers over the private lives of celebrities.

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, Lord Wakeham said the "intolerable" spate of privacy injunctions granted was an "inevitable" consequence of the legislation, which was passed by Labour in 1998.

The peer warned that the only way to resolve what David Cameron has branded an "unsustainable" situation was for Parliament to change the law so judges could only grant injunctions where issues "impact on public authorities and the State".

Lord Wakeham, who chaired the Press Complaints Commission from 1995 to 2001, suggested the media should be "outside the direct supervision of the courts on privacy issues" and should instead be regulated by a strengthened PCC.

His intervention came as the row over privacy injunctions raged on after Lib Dem MP John Hemming named Ryan Giggs as the footballer who took out a gagging order to cover up an alleged extra-marital affair. The Manchester United star took part in a testimonial match for Gary Neville on Tuesday night, despite continuing controversy that saw journalists' cars attacked outside his home.

Mr Cameron, who campaigned at the last election to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, has set up a committee of MPs and Lords to consider how to improve the "unfair" situation of newspapers being bound by injunctions while foreign-based websites can ignore them.

But Lord Wakeham, who tried to persuade Labour to exempt the PCC from the Human Rights Act while it was still going through Parliament in 1997, said the only answer was to revisit the Act.

The purpose of the legislation was to enshrine into domestic law the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes the right to a private life. This section is now being used as the basis for the injunctions.

Lord Wakeham wrote: "The courts cannot sort this matter out on their own. Nor is the answer simply in 'strengthening' the Press Complaints Commission, which already has considerable powers but is often unable to deploy them because it is too frequently bypassed for the courts in high profile cases.

"Instead the Human Rights Act may have to be amended, possibly by limiting the role of the courts to dealing with issues that impact only on public authorities and the State (as the drafters of the Convention envisaged)."

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