My Lords, I declare an interest as a television producer who has been involved in investigative programmes for the BBC and other channels. I listened with horror to the stories of victims that my noble friend Lord Kerslake told, and I am assure that I was as appalled as the rest of the House. In previous debates, my noble friend Lady Hollins has also talked about victims’ stories, which must also have appalled us all. However, I ask the House to consider how the amendment could rebalance the relationship between the right to privacy of the individual and the right to freedom of expression, in favour of the former.
I am particularly concerned about proposed new subsection (3)(f) of the amendment, which looks innocent enough—and I think that it would help the victims of phone hacking, which of course is something I welcome. However, it might come at a terrible cost to freedom of expression. This morning I spoke to a number of representatives of the most responsible newspapers and broadcasters about their fears over this proposed new subsection. They are concerned that switching the balance between free speech and the privacy rights of the individual will raise the bar for the way in which publication in the public interest is viewed by the courts. As someone who has worked in the media for many years, I fear that even the prospect of the bar being raised will have a chilling effect on investigative journalism. Editors will be afraid to commission investigative stories for fear of not being able to publish them. Likewise, it will empower lawyers who want to defend the privacy of wealthy individuals.
I have looked at the case brought against the BBC and the Guardian newspaper for the publication of the Paradise papers, which exposed no illegality but revealed, on an industrial scale, the avoidance of paying British tax by huge corporations and wealthy individuals. The purpose of the publication was not only to expose the actions of individuals and corporations but to focus British public and political opinion on the nature of offshore investments and tax avoidance—which I would argue is definitely in the public interest. Yet the lawyers at Appleby, the offshore legal firm at the centre of the Paradise papers affair, used a breach of confidence case against the media’s use of privileged documents to target the organisations involved.
The case has been settled, but if it had gone to full trial the judge would have had to weigh up the right to privacy of the individual against the public interest in publishing the documents. In all these cases, editors must take into account the possibility of losing, even when publication is demonstrably in the public interest. An inquiry into rebalancing rights of privacy against freedom of expression will further increase that anxiety. I am not concerned just about the rebalancing of rights to the detriment of free speech; I am also concerned that this amendment will be a distraction from the implementation of a complicated series of new legal powers introduced by the Bill. Many of these will be challenged by the courts and will consume a huge amount of time on the part of media organisations, as all sides struggle to ensure that the very worthwhile measures set out in the Bill are put into full effect. The amendment is retrospective and potentially damaging to the Bill and to free speech in this country. I urge noble Lords to vote against it.