Leveson debate prompts criticism over 'draconian' punitive damages plan

Lord Lester said suggested penalty, which would apply to any publisher involved in privacy breaches, was wrong in principle

Awarding exemplary damages for breaches of privacy by the press would be wrong in principle and could lead to the overnight closure of local newspapers and magazines such as Private Eye, Lord Lester has warned in a House of Lords debate about the Leveson report.

The Liberal Democrat peer criticised Lord Justice Leveson on Friday, for ignoring repeated rejections of such a move by successive Labour governments and by Justice Eady, a high court judge. Eady awarded £60,000 in a landmark privacy case brought by former Formula One boss Max Mosley against the News of the World, but stopped short of exemplary damages.

Lester said exemplary damages were not about compensating the victim, but were about punishing a newspaper.

In his report on press ethics and the future regulation of the industry, Leveson recommended that one incentive for newspapers to join a new regulatory regime would be to ensure that by not joining the body, publishers would also lay themselves open to bigger claims for exemplary damages, where they are found to have infringed the civil law rights of claimants.

"This potentially draconian penalty would apply to any publisher including a small regional paper or Private Eye," said Lester.

The peer has a keen interest in newspaper regulation and in early December drafted his own five-clause bill on the future regulation of the press.

He said Eady had set out in detail in his Mosley judgment why exemplary damages for privacy breaches would be "wrong in principle and a violation of free speech". Lester said: "I hope very much that proposals [for exemplary damages] will not be take forward by the government or anyone else."

Also speaking in the House of Lords debate on Friday, was Lord Lamont, the former chancellor of the exchequer and Tory peer, whose private life was of much interest to the tabloids.

Lamont challenged David Cameron's assertion that to introduce statutory underpinning for the new regulator would be crossing the Rubicon. The Cambridge professor and press commentator, Baroness O'Neill, also said she favoured statutory underpinning.

The proposal for a royal charter to verify or audit decision-making by the new press watchdog on a three-yearly basis put forward by Cameron's policy adviser, Oliver Letwin, was challenged by Lord Fowler. He said it was "entirely beyond me" as to why the press would go along with this as it would give power to the Privy Council.

Lord Astor, whose family owned the Observer in the 1950s, disputed Fowler's point, saying parliament could only debate a royal charter and not amend it.

Astor added that he was in favour of self-regulation, arguing that to his family's cost he discovered readers are intelligent enough to stop buying papers when they object to their content. He noted that when his uncle was the Observer editor he took a stance against the 1956 Suez invasion. As a result, readers deserted to the Sunday Times, whose circulation overtook that of its rival in a move the Observer was unable to reverse.

Baroness Boothroyd, the former Commons speaker, said statutory press regulation was not the answer, as it had failed in many sectors, including banking, care homes, the police and parliament. Nor was the answer a royal charter, which in the BBC's case, had demonstrated that it was "no guarantee of invincibility".

She added that a "cultural revolution" was needed in the press and proprietors needed to monitor the activities of their staff much more closely. "They must never again claim they did not know what was going on because it won't wash any more," she said.

Lord Prescott used the debate to criticise Scotland Yard detective chief inspector April Casburn for phoning the News of the World complaining he was interfering in the phone-hacking scandal.

Casburn was found guilty of misconduct in a crown court case that concluded on Thursday for phoning the paper. Prescott said her complaint about him was almost as bad an offence, as it was his job to interfere because the Metropolitan police's first phone-hacking inquiry got it wrong.

Several peers including Baroness Buscombe, the discredited former chair of the Press Complaints Commission, bemoaned Leveson's lack of vision in relation to internet regulation.

The Earl of Caithness spoke poignantly of the suicide of his wife in 1994 and the "relentless" interest of the press in his life and his then school-attending children. He said it was worst time of his life, but he couldn't blame the press, as it was their job to get a story.

Caithness said that despite all of this, he was not in favour of statutory underpinning for a new regulator and human collateral damage was the price to pay for a free press. "We wanted privacy but some of the press wanted a story, the more salacious the better," he said. "When a fact or a truth emerged, that was ignored. But can they be blamed for that? That was an remains their job, to get a story.

"Some people and their children will continue to get unnecessarily hurt in the future, but that, my lords, is a price we must pay for as free a press as possible."


Lisa O'Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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