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Thursday, May 27, 1999 Published at 18:06 GMT 19:06 UK


Head to head: Regulating the press

The tabloid press was supposed to have cleaned up its act after the death of Princess Diana.

[ image: David Yelland: Editor at the centre of the storm]
David Yelland: Editor at the centre of the storm
But the publication of topless pictures of Sophie Rhys-Jones in The Sun suggests little may have changed - and the calls have redoubled for formal legislation to bring the newshounds to heel.

Tabloid journalist Nina Myskow, who writes for the Mirror, and former Conservative politician Harvey Proctor, have both fallen foul of press intrusion.

But they've drawn radically different conclusions from their experiences.

Nina Myskow:

A year after I left the News of the World, I was featured on their front page as having jumped into a jacuzzi with a toyboy.

Neither of us were married, but it was particularly hurtful.

But I was, in a way, fair game, in that I had become quite well known at the time for a programme I did called New Faces.

On the programme, I criticised people, appreciated their performances, perhaps the way they looked.

I could see that someone who was famous for criticising other people was open to criticism as well.

I certainly wouldn't support a law to stop this kind of thing happening.

I think once you start in the business of draconian laws, censorship, then you go down a very tricky path.

The people they are designed to protect are not necessarily protected, and the people who should not be protected by these laws - people in positions of power and authority, who are accountable to the public - will find a way around it.

We do have a right to expect that the people who represent us lead the sort of lives that they tell us we should be leading.

If you stand up in public and make statements that are completely at variance with what you do in your private life, then that is where the public has a right to know.

The public are outraged by this and quite rightly so; but it is the public who continue to buy the newspapers.

It may not be news but it is wonderful gossip and that is what people seem to want to read.

Freedom of speech has to be protected, and self-regulation does have to work.

But if there was no public desire for these pictures, then people wouldn't buy them and newspapers wouldn't print them.

Harvey Proctor:

I was fair game for anyone who disagreed with my political views - that's what I thought being a Member of Parliament was about.

But I don't think I was fair game on my personal life. And when they couldn't win the argument in my constituency, when my constituents agreed with my views, the press got at me through my personal life.

Now, if that was making any the less good member of parliament or less effective to my constituency, then that was fair game, but nobody suggested it was.

There is hypocrisy, and the press have good grounds for dealing with hypocrisy.

But I think the press are in danger of not reporting the news, but of going out and making news - not for the purpose of exposing anyone, but in the interest of selling newspapers.

As we've seen, the Sun has published a so-called apology. It's not of the same size as the original story, or on page one.

The Press Complaints Commission, if they judge against the Sun, can only make the paper print another apology.

That is not enough.

It is alleged that the Sun have paid £100,000 for the photographs. I think the paper should be fined its total revenue - from advertising, and the day's takings for the newspaper - and made to pay the money to charity, or to an organisation helping people fight libel.

People can take action against newspapers under the laws of libel and slander. But the problem is that it is very expensive for an individual to fight a newspaper corporation - it's an unequal fight.

Somehow that fight has got to be balanced up, so that people who genuinely think that they have been done down can get financial help to sue a newspaper.

I don't think MPs, or anybody in public life, should allow what happens in their bedroom to be on the front pages, unless it is getting in the way of the performance of his public duties.

And if it is, then these matters should be down to the police, not a newspaper. If they do hand in files to the police, it is only after they've made a mint publishing the story.

Newspapers are judge, jury and executioner in these cases, and they've gone too far.

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