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Monday, 6 March, 2000, 13:48 GMT
Privacy: A pressing problem

Can the press be trusted to respect our privacy?
The furore over the Mail on Sunday's attempts to publish material from a book by the Blair family's nanny has again brought the UK's lack of privacy laws back into focus.

The British press are not bound by any legislation to respect the privacy of individuals or their families, as is the case in many other countries.

Indeed there is still much debate about the exact definition of "privacy", and when a person can consider themselves to be in a "private" space.

Rosalind Mark
Tears before bedtime: Blair nanny Rosalind Mark [picture: Mail on Sunday]
In place of laws, British editors agree to abide by a self-regulatory code of practice drawn up by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

The code contains just two lines on privacy, saying that everyone's family life, home, health and correspondence should be respected.

These areas can be reported on if editors can "justify intrusions".

The code also rules out the use of long lens cameras to take pictures of individuals in places "where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy".

Code breakers?

The PCC says papers must comply with the letter and the spirit of this "ethical" code for self-regulation to work. Critics suggest both are consistently flouted.

Last year only one in eight of the 2,505 complaints received by the PCC concerned breaches of its privacy code, with national dailies heading the list of the accused.

Topless photographs of numerous soap actresses, pop stars and celebrity wives continue to fill the tabloids, with few complaints resulting.

Liz Hurley and Hugh Grant in their garden
Liz Hurley and Hugh Grant: No strangers to the long lens
DJ Zoe Ball, film star Liz Hurley and former EastEnder Martine McCutcheon have all ignored long lens shots of themselves splashed across the dailies.

Comedian Harry Enfield also chose not to take a Sunday tabloid to the PCC over the publishing of intimate pictures from his honeymoon.

"I feared the News of the World would rerun the pictures with a feature on my 'fury'," he said last year.

Critics of press self-regulation say it encourages papers to respect only the privacy of individuals who gain public sympathy.

Treated like royalty

While circulation-boosting celebrity stories continue to run, the press has become cautious about tackling royal stories.

Last summer, the Sun was forced into an embarrassing climbdown following the printing of old topless shots of Sophie Rhys-Jones, the then fiancée of Prince Edward.

Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the PCC beefed up its code concerning the treatment of children amid public calls for Princes William and Harry to be left in peace.

Prince Harry skiing
Sloping off: Papers allow Prince Harry more privacy
It is this article, saying intrusions into the lives of children must be justified "other than by the fame, notoriety or position of his or her parent", which the Blairs could well claim has been breached.

British editors and journalists have long resisted formal privacy laws, arguing such legislation would hinder investigative journalism.

Tom Bower, who was landed with a fine of 10,000 French francs in a court after writing about the late tycoon Robert Maxwell, is firmly against similar laws on this side of the Channel.

"I think that a privacy law would only protect the guilty and the people whose exploits should be discussed," he said.

France is famed for its "draconian" privacy laws, where individuals have the copyright to their own image.

A privacy law would only protect the guilty and the people whose exploits should be discussed

Tom Bower
It is widely believed that the laws, and their accompanying fines, have guarded the French politicians and celebrities from the intrusions endured by their British counterparts.

However, some commentators suggest the French public do not share the British taste for scandal.

Those French publications which do hunt out dirt or publish salacious pictures, including shots of Europe's royals, have begun to expect fines and adjust their budgets accordingly.
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12 Oct 99 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Private lives and the public eye
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