British Press May Get Rule on Privacy

A call for curbs on the media comes as the prime minister witnesses a feeding frenzy on last week's US visit.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has begun searching for ways to sidestep the media pitfalls now afflicting Bill Clinton and his presidency, having seen them firsthand on a White House visit last week.

But his government's efforts are stirring a hornets' nest among politicians and journalists alike.

Mr. Blair even had to rein in a senior colleague who advocated legal curbs on the media's right to report on the private lives of government ministers.

Tensions across the politics-media divide broke out Feb. 4 when Lord Chancellor Irvine, who heads Britain's legal system, proposed that editors should accept "prior restraint" rules when publishing stories about people in the public eye, and be fined if they break them. Prior restraint would require editors to submit such stories to an outside authority before deciding to use them.

Lord Irvine told the New Statesman magazine that newspapers should have been banned last fall from publishing details of an affair between British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and his secretary. Mr. Cook has been the focus of critical media attention ever since.

Irvine went on to argue that the media should either voluntarily accept such restrictions or, if they refuse, have curbs imposed by the courts. Unlike the United States, Britain has no equivalent to the First Amendment, although Parliament is debating a bill which, if passed, would guarantee the right to free expression.

Apparently, Irvine was trying to help Blair. Last Friday, the British leader looked on as American journalists blitzed President Clinton with questions concerning Monica Lewinsky during a joint news conference.

The immediate reaction to Irvine's remark was bitter hostility by leading journalists. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper, said Irvine was threatening to breach human rights. Steven Glover, senior columnist for the Daily Telegraph, suggested the Lord Chancellor should be renamed "Lord Censor."

But Irvine, the nation's top law officer, came in for even harsher criticism when Blair's own spokesman publicly rebuked him, saying, "The prime minister's view is that there will not be a privacy law, either by the front door or by the back door."

Although Irvine had, in the words of a senior government source, "gone over the top," it is clear that Blair and his ministers want to rein in parts of the British press.

Under current rules, the press regulates itself voluntarily under the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), consisting of editors and prominent figures outside the media. Following the Aug. 31 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Lord Wakeham, chairman of the PCC, announced stricter guidelines aimed at protecting the privacy of citizens.

Lord Wakeham has since emerged as a champion of journalists' rights. In a letter this month to Culture Minister Chris Smith, he warned that politicians could hide behind a system of prior restraint if they learned they were the target of a media investigation.

"It would be of no practical use to ordinary people and is therefore a device which the public should look upon only with skepticism," Wakeham said.

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