Editors warn MPs of threats to press

Press Standards Select Committee hears of concerns over libel and privacy laws

During the past two weeks, various newspapers editors have given evidence on the threat to press freedom from libel and privacy claims to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

Today Colin Myler, editor of the News of the World, spoke extensively about the Max Mosley privacy case, defending the decision to run the story on the grounds that Mr Mosley is, in his view, a public figure. Mr Myler also said that recent privacy cases had meant that his newspaper was now more vigilant than ever before: "The level of proof for getting a story into the News of the World is higher than I have experienced in 40 years". Tom Crone, News Group’s legal manager, also gave evidence, telling the Committee about the problems of juries hearing libel cases and the high level of damages awarded to celebrities.

Last month the Committee was told by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, that the combination of the Human Rights Act and the use of CFAs was having a chilling effect on the press: "Together they present a lethal weapon crushing press freedom."

Peter Hill, editor of the Daily Express, described the press as "very shackled" and was critical of the current British libel laws. He spoke about his newspaper’s coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Accepting that the Daily Express coverage had libelled Mr and Mrs McCann, Mr Hill said he had not offered to resign over the coverage adding: "If editors had to resign every time there was a libel action against them, there wouldn’t be any editors".

Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, told the Committee that he remained more worred about libel than privacy. Highlighting that there had yet to be a case where judges were presented with a clear public interest defence, he said that more time should be given for test cases before introducing privacy legislation. Mr Rusbridger also gave evidence on the prohibitive effect of high legal costs on running controversial stories about large companies and rich individuals. Citing a recent incident where his newspaper had felt compelled to spend £90,000 on pre-publication legal advice, he said that "there are very few organisations that are going to do that kind of journalism in future faced by that kind of penalty."

Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, said that he now received less libel complaints but an increasing number in respect of privacy: "I think the cliché is privacy is the new libel. If you want to shut people up, privacy is the way you go about it because libel is too difficult."