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Friday, May 28, 1999 Published at 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK

Privacy: The threat to press freedom

Newspaper revelations have fuelled calls for a privacy law in the UK

Britain's proud tradition of a free press is once more in conflict with the right to privacy.

The desire not to have one's private life poked into and peddled purely for public entertainment is understandable and fully justified.

But fury at pictures of a topless Sophie Rees-Jones in the Sun, and the resultant calls for privacy laws, could imperil the investigative powers and free voice of the press, experts warn.

Our loyalty to the idea of a free press has historically prevented the introduction of a formal British law setting out citizens' rights to privacy.

[ image: The public can thank the press for the Neil Hamilton affair, say opponents of a law]
The public can thank the press for the Neil Hamilton affair, say opponents of a law
Instead, editors have three governing influences:

  • a voluntary code of conduct aimed at achieving a standard of ethics across the whole newspaper industry
  • the European Convention on Human Rights
  • the libel laws.

The code of conduct, which aims to regulate the behaviour of reporters and photographers during investigations, is intended to reassure the public, politicians and celebrities that they will not suffer unnecessary intrusion. Journalists use it to argue that a law is not necessary.

Voluntary guidelines

The code is enforced by independent watchdog the Press Complaints Commission and came under scrutiny after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, who had complained of intrusion. The guidelines were then significantly toughened up.

They include a pledge to allow everyone respect for their private life: "Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence. A publication will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. The use of long-lens photography to take pictures of people in private places without their consent is unacceptable. "

[ image: Former DJ Kara Noble sold topless pictures of Sophie Rees Jones]
Former DJ Kara Noble sold topless pictures of Sophie Rees Jones
The code states journalists must not photograph people in private places and must not publish material from other sources which do not meet these requirements.

But it allows exceptions under the "public interest" - the defence most often quoted by newspapers.

These guidelines come close to the European convention, which is currently being tested by the courts. It seeks to protect both individuals' privacy, and that of the freedom of the press - in an apparently contradictory way, which underlines the difficulty of framing any legislation.

These restraints create grey areas into which many stories and pictures fall. And passionate debate continues both for and against a new privacy law.

Chairman of the PCC, Lord Wakeham, consistenty argues that a law would be counter-productive, protecting only the rich, while limiting public interest investigations.

He says the new code includes protection for schoolchildren, including Princes William and Harry.

"Self-regulation will never be perfect," he said. "It will have its ups and downs and we will have to keep changing it. But it is infinitely more successful than any legal system is likely to be."

Relying on humiliation

His view is supported by Rod Allen, head of Journalism at City University in London, who believes a law would allow wrongdoing to go undetected.

"You have to think very carefully about what might be lost under a privacy law," he said. "Take cases such as Neil Hamilton or David Mellor which were exposed by the press - a law would work against the public interest. The right of the press needs to be protected zealously."

Mr Allen warns against any kneejerk legislation: "A law introduced in public anger would be very restrictive," he said. "Especially as politicians and journalists are natural opponents.

"We have to rely on the potential humiliation that self-regulation creates. David Yelland [editor of the Sun] has had to apologise and been humiliated by public opinion. When the PCC finds against the Sun - and it will - they will have to publish a non-tongue-in-cheek apology which will be worse for him.

"The self-regulatory system is full of flaws but it's infinitely preferable to a law that would be too restrictive. The freedom of the press ought to be absolutely safeguarded as it's so valuable to a democracy."

The only possible redress for someone who believes their privacy has been infringed is the law of confidentiality. The principal means used to enforce it is the injunction - in the case of the media, a court order banning publication. But this often hard as the plaintiff has to prove many points to succeed.

TV investigations

Labour MP Clive Soley, who seven years ago drafted a controversial bill setting up an Independent Press Authority to enforce correction of inaccuracies, doubted whether self-regulation was enough.

Mr Soley told BBC News Online he would like to see a Freedom of the Press law containing clauses on accuracy, impartiality and privacy - and believes the UK will get one eventually.

"We should enable a person to go to court and argue 'that was an invasion of my privacy and unnecessary' and the court would make a judgement.

"The newspaper code of conduct isn't bad but it isn't enforced."

Mr Soley denied that a law would block investigations, saying newspapers could be subject to the same regulations governing the BBC and ITV, who in his opinion, produced some of the best investigative journalism around and were respected for it.

Then Britain's tough libel laws could be reduced, he said.

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