Why McNally may be wrong on privacy law

Tom McNally calls for yet more legislation on privacy law, but this could be last thing that privacy

From a simplistic point of view there is a certain force in reported comments by the justice minister Lord (Tom) McNally that the development of privacy law should be left to parliament, and not to the courts.

But it may not actually be that straightforward.

What is often not realised is that parliament has already legislated heavily in respect of privacy rights. There is the Data Protection Act 1998 and its alarmingly expansive and ever-growing subordinate legislation. There is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. There are the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003. In fact, there are scores of pieces of legislation currently in force, and all this is before one even gets to the multiplying codes of practice and Information Commissioner guidance. There is certainly no lack of parliamentary or other official intervention in respect of privacy law. In fact, there is probably far too much.

What McNally means, of course, is not privacy law generally, but a particular aspect of privacy law: the extent to which the mainstream media can rely on the pretext of "free expression" to intrude into the private spaces of individuals and to publish hitherto personal information to the world at large. This is because, in recent years, the courts have (rightly) developed the equitable and historic doctrine of confidentiality into a basis on which an injunction can be obtained for such wrongful disclosure or misuse of private information.

Yet even on this, parliament has already legislated, almost in anticipation of this welcome and overdue judicial development. Section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (which, ironically, was included at the behest of the mainstream media for their supposed protection) forces the court to conduct a balancing exercise whenever it is asked to grant any relief (including injunctions) that affects free expression. Indeed, under Section 12(4) the court must have "particular regard" to free expression, and also take into account any privacy code that has been freely adopted by the mainstream media.

So there has been no failure by parliament to legislate in respect of privacy generally -- or in respect of press intrusion in particular.

The real background to McNally's comments is the disquiet of the mainstream media at the consequences of legislation already passed, especially the Human Rights Act, which gave effect in English law to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 8 provides that a person has a right to privacy which can be interfered with only in certain defined circumstances. The development of privacy law in the courts was a direct and foreseeable consequence of this significant legislative step. And now it has happened, the mainstream media want it all to go away.

This is not to deny that there are problems with how the courts are currently dealing with privacy law cases. In particular, there is a legitimate question as to what test should be adopted when granting "super-injunctions". There are also grave concerns over the extent to which privacy law can be used to hide improper business or even public activity.

All that said, it really is more for the higher courts -- the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court -- to determine the practical tests for injunctions. Such relief is always discretionary, not mandatory; and injunctions are part of the inherent jurisdiction of the courts, and do not usually have a statutory basis. Moreover, in granting injunctions, the courts already have to comply with Section 12 of the Human Rights Act. It is difficult to see what else legislation can do on this point.

Personal privacy is of fundamental importance in a free and civilised society. There is no automatic right of intrusion into a person's private life. Each intrusion, whether it be by the government or the mainstream media, should have a lawful basis and be no more than required to serve a wider public good.

Whether an injunction should ever be granted against the mainstream media to protect this right should be left to the court to decide in all the circumstances, having appropriate regard (as is now the case) to the right of free expression.

In my view, the courts have done a generally good job in developing privacy from the legislative tools already provided by parliament.

Now does not seem the time for statutory intervention in privacy law. Indeed, it is not even clear what that statutory intervention should be.

Instead, McNally and the Ministry of Justice should focus their attention on getting on with libel reform, where contributions to public debates are being prevented by an area of law that does need statutory intervention. Ensuring the efficacy of such public debates by libel reform is of far greater importance than seeking to limit the courts' ability to protect private lives with injunctions where there is no sufficient public interest in the threatened intrusion.

David Allen Green wrrites the Jack of Kent blog.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.