LONDON — THROUGHOUT summer, the British government and the British press seem on a collision course over what should and should not be printed about the private lives of people in the news. Recent royal revelations, some of which were uncovered by the tabloid press, have led to calls for papers to be gagged.
The man at the center of the latest row is David Mellor, who warned newspapers two years ago that they were "drinking at the last-chance saloon," after the tabloid press found out he was having an affair with an actress.
For those who find fault with the British press, the complaint is that the tabloid press intrudes unreasonably into the private lives of public figures, and stops at nothing to get and keep a salacious story on the front page with banner headlines.
And the charges have come not only from those at the eye of the storm. The former leader of the center Liberal Party, Sir David Steel, described the excesses of the press as "trial by tabloid." He continued, "I don't like seeing people hounded out of office by the tabloids for private misdemeanor. It think it's something rather repulsive in our present system."
The newspapers, of course, are responding to these criticisms. Bill Begerly, the editor of the People newspaper (which first ran the Mellor disclosures), told politicians, "If you don't want to read about it, don't do it!"
Within the next year, Parliament is expected to decide whether to restrict press freedom. It could be at the government's behest. But ministers are more likely to wait until the results of the inquiry into the press are known. Even if that happens, Clive Soley, a junior member of Parliament from the Labour Party, will make sure the issue is fully aired. He plans to put forward his own draft law that will require newspapers to print the correct version of events, if they are found to have published an ina ccurate report. Though Mr. Soley says he does not want to gag the press, he does want to make it more responsible. He also wants newspapers to be able to plead that what they published about a person was "in the public interest."
Soley suspects that the current controversy between government and the press over the Mellor scandal is a deliberate strategy by the newspapers. He says, "Some of what has been going on has certainly been the firing of a warning shot across the government's bow, as a warning of more to come if they press ahead with new laws."
The British "constitution" is a ramshackle collection of common law, statute law, case law, convention, and understanding. There is no single written document that sets out the constitution, which means that understood freedoms can be restricted by a single act of Parliament. Press freedom is no exception. It also means that privacy is not protected by law in Britain.
The press is fighting hard to try to make sure that its freedoms are not reigned in. Its bosses deny that they ambushed David Mellor as a muscle-flexing exercise to warn the government off. But they do say there are plenty of other skeletons in cupboards to disclose. The battle could get messier.
The skirmishes are not likely to be restricted to the single issue of privacy. Campaigners for more open government in Britain want reforms to match. They are anxious that if there is a new law to stop the press from publishing material, there must be a corresponding increase in the government's obligation to tell more.
"Britain is one of the most secretive of all the Western democracies," says Andrew Puddephatt, general secretary to the legal-reform pressure group Liberty. He says, "Official secrecy is really a blanket cast over everything the government does." He says if a privacy law recognizes that people's lives need to be free of intrusion, it must also recognize that the actions of certain individuals could legitimately be of public interest. "A move to increase the opportunity for cover ups must be matched by gr eater rights for the people as a whole to know what is going on."
The argument, and the revelations, are expected to continue.