Public figures appear before privacy committee

Appearing before the joint committee on privacy Steve Coogan, Hugh Grant, Max Mosley and Zac Goldsmith called for an independent body to oversee matters relating to privacy

A panel of celebrities and public figures, featuring Steve Coogan, Hugh Grant, Max Mosley and Zac Goldsmith, today called for a new independent body or arbitrator which would be able to determine the public interest in press coverage involving private matters.

Appearing before the joint committee on privacy and injunctions the individuals, who all claim to have suffered intrusions of their privacy, also stressed the importance for any new independent body to be financially accessible to anyone.

Former motorsport boss Max Mosley, who won £60,000 damages in his privacy case against the News of the World in 2008, as well as separate action against the now-defunct title in France earlier this year, said the current system means "it's only if you're well off that you can actually bring proceedings".

"It's absolutely essential we find means so ordinary people can defend their privacy. It's very comparable to burglary, privacy, but with burglary you can replace goods, a breach of privacy can never be repaired."

He also repeated his calls for prior notification, despite his appeal to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights on the matter being rejected in September, adding that subjects of planned stories should be given the opportunity to "know [their] privacy is about to be breached and to go to somebody independent and not [rely] on the goodwill of the editor".

Actor and comedian Steve Coogan added that the decision on whether a story is in the public interest should be made by "someone independent" and "not the editor of a newspaper, nor the potential victim".

"That's the crucial thing. And certainly not the PCC ... Anything which defines what privacy is should also help define what is in public interest and should also protect and enhance genuine public interest journalism at the same time as protecting people's privacy. It should go hand in hand, it is is not mutually exclusive, one thing should protect the other."

MP Zac Goldsmith concurred that it would be "key" that the decision of whether or not a story is in the public interest, when it is "in doubt", is not taken by someone "in a position of vested interest".

Actor Hugh Grant added that "it would be nice if that decision could always be made on a cultural basis", saying there are some editors in part of the newspaper industry who he would not want to see given the decision-making role.

Mosley added that such a body would also offer assistance to smaller newspapers, such as local titles, which if concerned about whether to "take a risk" and not able to afford legal action, would "also have a right to go to the body" and potentially get "the green light".

Discussing the public nature of their work and subsequent interest in their lives, Coogan told the committee the newspapers have no right to delve further in private matters.

"When it comes to speaking to the press I will speak because I am obliged to promote the film, or the programme. The quid pro quo is that helps sell newspapers. That's the end of the deal. It doesn't give them the right to go further."

Asked to give their views on the PCC a number of the members of the panel criticised the body. Appearing on a separate panel in front of the same committee, director of the PCC Stephen Abell said he wished to "start with the premise that the status quo is not an option".

"I want to start from absolutely the position that what there is needs to be improved, however there are lots of aspects of the work of the PCC which in my view should be continued".

"There are parts of what the PCC does which I strongly believe is valuable," he added.

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