In an interview on the “Today” programme yesterday, 3 May 2011, the Prime Minister David Cameron was asked for his views on privacy law and appeared to suggest that the way forward was through the Press Complaints Commission.  His remarks were seized on by the press as an endorsement of press regulation and an expression of concern about judicial activism.  Interestingly, he appears to have pulled back from his apparent suggestion two weeks ago that parliament should be making the law of privacy.

This was the exchange on the “Today” programme:

John Humphrys

“A privacy law, do you want one, are we going to see one, given what has been happening with super-injunctions and courts deciding and all this sort of thing?” 

David Cameron ”

“I think we should have a discussion and a debate about it.  As I said when I was asked about it in the factory in Luton this is an issue which needs further reflection because it seems that at the moment law is effectively being made by judges in response to cases using the European Convention on Human Rights and I think we should discuss what is the right way forward.  I sense that there is still more to be done to recognise that actually the Press Complaints Commission has come along a lot in recent years and we should be working with that organisation to make sure that people get the sort of protection that they need while … still having a free and vibrant press”. 

John Humphrys

“What people like Desmond Browne, eminent QC, said, he said it on this programme, is give us a new law and we’ll implement it, that’s what we actually want rather” 

David Cameron

“As I said, let’s have a debate about it .  Let’s deal with what we don’t want.  We don’t want statutory regulation of the press …” 

John Humphrys

” … but privacy law is a slightly different thing, isn’t it?” 

David Cameron

“By all means let’s debate it, but I think there is still more to be done through the Press Complaints Commission”.

The Daily Mail reported the remarks under the headline “Cameron praises the way media polices itself” with the Daily Telegraph reporting “David Cameron: press freedom must not be eroded by judges“.   Well, not quiteno mention of “judicial erosion” and, in fact, no criticism of the judges at all.

It is not surprising that a politician with David Cameron’s sensitive political antennae should pull back from the suggestion that parliament should enact a privacy law – something the press have opposed for 50 years.  Neither is it surprising that he should link a privacy law and statutory regulation – as discussed in Hugh Tomlinson QC’s post on “Privacy the way ahead?, the two are obvious alternatives to the present approach.   It is, however, clear that the PCC in its present form cannot provide a solution – it lacks pre-emptive or coercive powers and has repeatedly demonstrated its limitations, most recently in relation to “phone hacking”.

Without a privacy law or a statutory press regulation, in practice, the only remaining option is to allow the judges to get on with developing the common law of privacy (informed by the European Convention).   In other words, David Cameron’s soothing words for the press amount to an endorsement of the status quo.  This is, perhaps, what we should expect from a conservative politician.   The difficulties of radical reform in this area have meant that successive governments have decided that doing nothing is the best solution.  It seems likely that the Coalition will be no different.