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'Certain judges can't wait to give us a kicking'

Mirror editor Piers Morgan told Tessa Mayes why he is against a privacy law

'Privacy laws are for the rich and powerful to protect themselves. They do not and are not intended to protect the man in the street, but protect those who have the most to hide.

If you ask the Press Complaints Commission - who now get thousands more complaints than they ever did before because of the awareness that they exist - they tell you that the public complain about accuracy and taste. They hardly ever complain about invasions of privacy. It is almost entirely a complaint made by the rich and powerful, and almost entirely then by people who are lying through their back teeth.

I just do not believe that newspapers invade the privacy - in an unwarranted manner - of ordinary people in the street. And when it does happen, they do have the redress of going to the Press Complaints Commission. I promise you, as an editor, the last thing you want to do is have to admit you invaded somebody's privacy in an unwarranted manner.

I think the press, in fact, are behaving in a far more responsible way now than they were five years ago. If anything the case for a privacy law is going away.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was suggesting that we should do a deal with the government and take some form of privacy law, because otherwise we would have the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) imposed. [The ECHR contains an article on privacy which judges could interpret as a new law against press 'intrusion'.] Rusbridger argues we should do a deal because he wants to concentrate on libel law reform and a Freedom of Information Act. I kept arguing with him, "Look, you cannot allow a government to dictate a privacy law because they will tailor it to their own needs". If a politician is allowed to create one, he will create one that protects politicians. He won't give a stuff about the man on the street.

I feel very worried about the ECHR because [Lord Chancellor] Derry Irvine has never made any secret of wanting a privacy law. He has his own reasons because his own private life was in the newspapers. I just think that these laws should not be determined by people who have either an axe to grind or a vested interest in producing a privacy law. They should be produced by independent bodies if you are going to do it at all. But what is the point of a privacy law? What are people hoping to achieve?

We should concentrate our efforts to stop a privacy law coming through the back door. If the judges are going to set the privacy law through the ECHR, can you imagine the kinds of things we are going to have? Our judges have never heard of Gazza. Our judges have never heard of the Spice Girls. Our judges, time and again, commit absolute outrages like telling victims of sex attacks that it's no worse than going to a dentist. We are talking about people whose judgement I often find quite disgraceful and they are going to be the ones presiding over what they think should appear in popular newspapers? Why on Earth should judges who don't read newspapers like mine dictate what I think is right for my readers?

I can tell you that judges are champing at the bit to implement a privacy law through the back door. I know that from QCs I have spoken to. There are certain judges who can't wait to give us a kicking, and tell us how to run our newspapers, and that is totally outrageous and must be stopped. Tony Blair has said repeatedly that he doesn't want a privacy law, and yet he is not doing anything at the moment to prevent the ECHR implementing one through the back door and I think he needs to.

The press are implementing strict codes on privacy even before a law has been drafted. The press have never been under more stringent regulations and we have volunteered to make them more stringent since the death of Princess Diana, even though as time goes on the involvement of the press in the accident looks more and more remote. We have acknowledged public opinion on that.

There were clearly some methods used by the paparazzi which have been getting out of hand, and although it now looks like they weren't directly involved in the Diana crash, they could have been because of their antics. What we are saying is that there are sections of our business which need to be cleaned up and that's what we are doing. I think the press are behaving far better than they ever have and that's the great irony of this latest charge for a privacy law. People who are calling for it don't know what they are talking about.

The more pompous arrogant idiots in our business think that they are totally above using paparazzi photography, invading people's private lives and all the rest of it. The truth is every paper does it. Almost every story that we carry every day invades somebody's life some way. It's a fact of life. You cannot write about people without invading private lives. The question then is: is there a legitimate reason for publishing this information?

For the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Times to pretend that in some way they are above all that, just look at their papers today. Look at the number of stories that have directly affected somebody's private life and you will see the rank hypocrisy. I am not hypocritical about it. I openly accept that we do this every day but I also justify it on the grounds that we do so in the public interest. Not what interests the public, but what is in the public interest.

I would not give up any press freedom. We've already given up too much in my view. Our readers are great arbiters of good taste and decency. If they don't like something they stop buying the paper. If we want to start censoring the press and restricting freedom of expression by bringing in privacy laws, we'll end up with newspapers like they have in France which are totally unreadable. Nobody reads them. They might as well pack up and go home. More people per head buy a newspaper in Britain than anywhere else in the world, with the exception I think of Japan. They do so because they love what they buy.

The snobby intelligentsia who read the broadsheets and draw their own conclusions about newspapers refer to us as the gutter press. We are not the gutter. We are the most popular press in this country, and it is just, frankly, insulting. The people of this country read tabloid newspapers. The Mirror is read by seven million people a day, the Sun is read by 12 million. The Guardian is read by under a million, the Daily Telegraph is read by maybe a million-and-a-half.

There is as much investigative journalism happening now as there was 10 years ago. People go on about the great old Daily Mirror with its great campaigning investigative journalism. Go and get the great Daily Mirror 10, 20, 30 years ago. It's a load of old crap. The paper used to be 28 pages of complete froth with a bit of news stuck in between. I know because I've read them all. People keep telling me about the halcyon days. They never existed. It was always the cheeky, naughty tabloid. Now we have 108 pages - five times as much.

People who lead the calls for privacy laws and are most vocal about the antics of the tabloids have never taken a risk in their lives. They have never tried to publish a dangerous story in their lives. They are people who sit at the back of the bar and they moan and they whinge and they castigate people like me who are actually at the sharp end of it, doing it every day. And what I say to these people is "you come to a newspaper, and you go through it every day, and you see how easy it is to make those calls all day long about what is not and what is in the public interest". It is much easier to sit at the back of the bar and say how disgusting the tabloids are all the time. It is ridiculous and futile.

If you enforce a privacy law in the way that the judges and MPs would like it you would not be able to publish anything. We would never come out. You could not publish the story about Earl Spencer's divorce. Here you have a man who used his audience of three billion people to castigate and humiliate the press. He claimed that we were the bottom end of the moral spectrum. Here is a man who had 12 affairs in five months while his wife was in a clinic. Surely the public are entitled to know that before they draw any opinions from Earl Spencer on the morality of the press? The privacy law would stop you publishing it.

We should campaign to make sure Tony Blair realises that is likely to happen, and get the government to stop it by excluding the press from the law. Simple as that.'

This is an edited extract from 'Disclosure: Media Freedom and the Privacy Debate after Diana' by Tessa Mayes, published by the London International Research Exchange. For copies please contact the London International Research Exchange on 0171 388 7167 or e-mail: media@easynet.co.uk

Reproduced from LM issue 107, February 1998

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