THE British press, for centuries considered a bastion of free expression, faces a series of new laws that threaten to put strict curbs on what it can publish. The latest bill, scheduled to be debated in Parliament tomorrow, proposes a clear right of reply for people who consider they have been unfairly treated by a newspaper report.
The bill, sponsored by an opposition Labour MP, Tony Worthington, enjoys considerable support from members of all the main parties. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is under pressure from her own party's backbenchers to support the legislation.
British editors, however, express deep concern that the bill could destroy their independence.
Mr. Worthington believes that too many newspapers, particularly in the mass circulation tabloid press, distort or invent facts about people they write about. He proposes establishing a statutory press commission to which people with grievances could turn, seeking the right of reply to what has been written about them.
At present, the only options open to them are to request an editor to publish a reply, to make a complaint to the Press Council (a nonstatutory body), or to seek redress through the courts - usually a long and expensive process.
Donald Trelford, editor of the respected Sunday newspaper, The Observer, says that passage of the Right of Reply Bill would make Britain ``a shameful laughing-stock in the civilized world.''
His views are echoed by virtually all other newspaper editors who see their editorial freedom being seriously impaired, if not destroyed, by the proposed 21-member government-appointed complaints commission.
The new legislation would require editors to publish a reply in cases of complaints by people mentioned in news coverage. In effect, editors say they would lose their discretion over what appeared in their columns and could have editorial material imposed on them against their will.
Mr. Trelford and other editors note that the government has already passed a new Official Secrets Act that takes away from the press the defense of public interest in cases where security is concerned. This legislation followed hard upon the ``Spycatcher case,'' in which the Thatcher government unsuccessfully tried to ban publication of a book about the British intelligence services.
Few countries in the world have such a vigorous press as Britain or a general public so keen to read newspapers. In a nation of 50 million, more than 16 million buy a morning paper, and millions of others buy an evening paper as well. There are a dozen national dailies, and 17 provincial papers published in the mornings. In matters of allegedly unfair reporting, the main culprits are the mass circulation tabloid dailies. They are in bitter competition with each other, and thus vie to produce the most sensational stories.
In recent weeks two stories have been given what the more serious press calls ``the treatment.'' One concerned alleged liaisons between a former Miss India and a wide range of politicians and other public figures, including newspaper editors. The other story concerned intimate letters allegedly sent to Princess Anne, the Queen's daughter, that were subsequently passed to The Sun newspaper. The Sun declined to publish the letters, but a furor developed anyway over the gross exaggerations in both press accounts.
These and other incidents have helped to fuel public resentment against the press, and have enabled Worthington to muster support for his Right of Reply Bill.
Ironically, the print media is coming under pressure to mend its ways at a moment when the Thatcher government is pushing to deregulate television. A number of satellite channels have already begun transmitting, and others will begin broadcasting in a few months. In addition, the pattern of TV broadcasting will soon be changed, with franchises for channels carrying commercials allocated to the highest bidder.
If the Worthington bill goes ahead, other MPs have prepared a Right to Privacy measure which they would also like to pass into law. This would permit aggrieved parties to claim that their privacy had been invaded by the press.
There are those in the media, however, who appear ready to fight against encroaching curbs. One such individual is the new chairman of the Press Council, Louis Blom-Cooper, an eminent barrister who wants to reshape the council's activities and give it sharper ``teeth.''
Mr. Blom-Cooper hopes to persuade editors to accept a much sterner formula for self-regulation and to make it possible for complaints to the Press Council to be dealt with more speedily.
If he can prove to Thatcher that he and his council are serious, the Prime Minister could decide to withhold support for the Worthington bill.
If not, the legislation is very likely to be enacted, and editors will have to face what Trelford and others describe as a nightmare of official regulation.