LONDON — BRITAIN'S newspaper editors are up in arms about a proposal that the government control the press through a statutory media tribunal.
A leaked report by Sir David Calcutt, a distinguished lawyer whom Prime Minister John Major asked last year to recommend ways of controlling media intrusion into private lives, proposes that a new law be passed by parliament and administered by a tribunal with the power to impose stiff sentences on editors.
But editors of tabloid newspapers say they would ignore such a law, and one claims he would rather go to jail than obey it.
Sources inside Mr. Major's Cabinet suggest that ministers are divided on the Calcutt proposals, but that the prime minister, backed by Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke, favors press curbs.
Major asked Calcutt to make recommendations at the end of a year in which the media carried detailed reports of the marital problems of leading members of the royal family - the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of York. Both couples later split up.
Two Cabinet ministers and the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party were also seriously embarrassed by press reports of their private activities. David Mellor, a senior member of Major's Cabinet, resigned after reports of his affair with an actress.
Major was reported to have been outraged by what he saw as tabloid onslaughts on Mr. Mellor and, later, on Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont, who was reported to have made late payments of credit card debts.
The prime minister decided that the existing Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a voluntary body that includes editors, lacked the authority to discipline the media.
Calcutt, whose proposals were sent to Downing Street Jan. 8, said the answer was to set up a media tribunal headed by a judge. Under his proposals, which by Jan. 12 had yet to be officially published, journalists would be forced to follow a statutory code laid down by the tribunal. If the tribunal decided that its rules had been broken, it could dictate to editors the wording of published apologies and corrections.
But leaked versions of the report sparked a sharp response from editors. Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the mass-circulation Sun newspaper, said he would "ignore any attempt by a ... judge to tell me what goes into our paper," and would "go to prison rather than comply."
Andrew Neil, editor of the broadsheet Sunday Times, complained that the government was preparing to "prevent the media from uncovering facts that the political establishment does not want to be published."
The Calcutt proposals ran into trouble from Lord McGregor, chairman of the PCC, who said a statutory body would be "a disaster for our democracy," because it would "provide politicians with a comfortable life." "I view it as embarking for the first time in 300 years on press censorship," he said.
But Sir Ivan Lawrence, chairman of the influential all-party parliamentary home affairs committee, said Britons were "aghast at some aspects of the press." He accused the press of having "practically destroyed the royal family," and added: "The press has an enormous amount of power. It can't be resisted by ordinary people."
COMPLAINTS about the tabloids' intrusion into the life of the royal family were undermined when Lord McGregor announced Jan. 12 that Prince Charles and Princess Diana had both instigated the press reports of their marital difficulties. He said the PCC had been misled into thinking that reports of the couple's problems had been instigated by newspapers.
The reported split in Major's Cabinet suggests that the government will move cautiously on media control. According to a senior government source, the prime minister was likely to "opt for a privacy law," but "might hesitate" to insist on a press tribunal with powers of enforcement.
The source said Major was determined to make it impossible for newspapers to use electronic bugging devices to obtain stories. A tape recording of an alleged phone conversation between Diana and a male friend was part of newspaper coverage of the marriage break-up of the Prince and Princess, though its source is unknown.
Neil and other editors, however, said a privacy law in a country which lacks a freedom of information act would be undesirable.
Editorial reaction to Calcutt's ideas suggests that the government will have its work cut out in implementing press curbs. Some 20 million Britons read tabloid newspapers every day.