Gray Areas Riddle Effort in Britain To Enforce Strict New Privacy Code
Taming The Tabloids
LONDON — British editors are under heavy pressure to abide by a stricter privacy code aimed at curbing the excesses of tabloid newspapers and slamming the door on intrusive photography by so-called paparazzi.
Under the new rules, prompted by excessive media coverage of the life and death of Diana, Princess of Wales, newspapers would be banned from publishing pictures obtained by stalking, trespassing, or road chases.
The code also would put a halt to stories on the private lives of children of famous parents and contains a tighter definition of what constitutes private property. The new rules have been drawn up by Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which attempts to raise standards in the newspaper industry.
He says he has already consulted editors on the code and is confident that members of the industry will respect and adhere to it.
Lord Wakeham, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, said last week that under the code there would "no longer be a market in Britain for pictures taken by the sort of photographers who persistently pursued Princess Diana."
"Motorbike chases, stalking, and hounding are unacceptable, and editors who carry pictures obtained by them will be subjected to the severest censure by the Commission," he said.
Resentment of the activities of paparazzi fueled public anger in the aftermath of the car crash that killed the princess.
Paparazzi have been accused of chasing the princess's car into a tunnel where it crashed at high speed.
The commission's work
The PCC, set up in 1991, is a self-regulating authority. It consists of a mixture of newspaper and magazine editors and people outside the industry. The latter are in the majority.
Members of the general public, as well as more prominent people, are able to telephone or write to the PCC and lodge a formal complaint, which is then investigated.
If the complaint is upheld, the publication concerned is required to print the substance of the adjudication.
The new code unveiled by Lord Wakeham represents the most determined attempt so far to secure agreement by editors to respect individual privacy.
As well as banning "persistent pursuit" by photographers and activities such as "door-stepping" by reporters, it extends the right to privacy to all children still in full-time education. Previously the limit was the age of 16.
One effect of the code would be to set tight limits on journalistic coverage of Prince William, heir to the British throne, and his brother Prince Harry, who are still in school.
Other provisions forbid media intrusion into the lives of the bereaved and grieving, and expand the definition of private property to include such places as churches, restaurants, and beaches where people believe they have a right to have their privacy respected.
Lord Wakeham has invited photo agencies, which are not represented on the PCC, to sign up to its new code of practice.
Andrew Marr, respected editor of the Independent newspaper, says the code contains "a few gray areas" but on the whole seems to be "good news for those at the receiving end of intrusive journalism."
One gray area, says Mr. Marr, is a provision that photography in private places is banned unless there is "an overriding public interest."
"Who defines 'overriding' ?" Marr asks. Commenting on the need to accept a new newspaper code of practice, Marr says: "After the death of Diana, people's natural curiosity and their acquired social sense of decency collided. The press, caught in the moral dilemma, has had to respond."
Charles Moore, editor of the Daily Telegraph, says the key to the new code is its "extension of the right to privacy." "This is a vital principle, and everyone will be watching to ensure that tabloid papers stick to the rules," he says.
Changed policy at one tabloid
In an early, and encouraging, response to the PCC's new code, Rupert Murdoch's tabloid News of the World, which sells 4.4 million copies every Sunday, told more than 100 freelance photographers and agencies in Britain and overseas that they must sign a declaration confirming that they would not pursue people in the news in order to obtain photographs.
Part of the problem of enforcing the new code, says Wakeham, is that there is a global market for intrusive photography of famous people.
He has made contact with the ambassadors and press regulators of European countries, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, asking for a meeting to discuss the problem.