LONDON — SOME experts believe Britain's unwritten constitution is being put in jeopardy by reporting of the marital problems of Prince Charles, heir to the throne, and his wife Diana, Princess of Wales.
Lord St. John of Fawsley, a leading authority on constitutional matters, believes a forthcoming book - "Diana: Her True Story" - claiming that the princess has attempted suicide five times since her marriage to the prince a decade ago, "casts a shadow over our parliamentary and constitutional system."
"A warning needs to be uttered that our institutions are fragile," Lord St. John said. "If we do not exercise self-restraint, we shall destroy them.... You can't have a free society unless you have some sort of interior moral restraints which are freely imposed."
The book, by Andrew Morton, a journalist, was also condemned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, as "prurient reporting" likely to harm Prince William and Prince Harry, the royal couple's children.
Dr. Carey's stand was supported by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
In an unusually sharp comment, the watchdog body set up by newspapers said such reporting was "an odious exhibition of journalists dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people's souls."
Lord St. John's criticisms were supported by Anthony Barnett, coordinator of Charter 88, a group formed to promote a written constitution for Britain.
"The monarchy has come to represent the British people because we do not have a written constitution and because the institutions that used to support the monarchy - for example the Church of England and the hereditary peerage - do not have the importance they once had.
"The monarch is left terribly exposed, and now the surrounding family support seems to be going as well. This puts intolerable pressure on the person who is supposed to represent the British people as a whole." Adoption of a written constitution, he says, would take some of the pressure off the monarchy.
The PCC attack on the Sunday Times and other newspapers that have given massive coverage to the couple's marital problems is likely to increase demands from politicians for a statutory body to oversee media matters. Next month the government will begin a review of press self-regulation.
Lord St. John said he would not advocate censorship of the media, but it was necessary for Parliament to "look very carefully at the position of privacy in the law and whether there need to be restrictions on intrusion into the private lives of everybody, whether they be royal or not."
David Mellor, a senior government minister concerned with media matters, said June 8 the PCC's comments would be taken into account in the government's review of press self-regulation.
But tabloid editors denied that there were constitutional implications in their coverage of the story, claiming the story had to be told. The Daily Express said in an editorial: "The press has merely been doing its job in a free and open society."
Mr. Morton claims his book is based on interviews with friends of the princess. Buckingham Palace denies that Princess Diana cooperated in writing it.
Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, said June 8 he possessed signed statements from named sources, attesting to the book's accuracy.