British Press Struggles for Circulation - and Standards

FLEET Street may no longer be the geographic center of the British press. The last major newspaper to be produced there departed for premises in West London earlier this year. But the journalistic diaspora to new offices around the British capital is creating a starburst of new titles and is being accompanied by lively debate about news-media ethics.

The Correspondent, a ``quality'' Sunday newspaper, was launched Sept. 17 to rival existing titles that are having to refurbish themselves to compete. It was the first ``serious'' Sunday paper to be launched in London for 27 years. It is not the brainchild of a single newspaper magnate (investment has come from financial interests), and it claims its politics will be nonaligned.

In January, another quality Sunday newspaper will enter the field. Other Sunday papers include the Observer, the Sunday Times, and the Sunday Telegraph. An offshoot of the Independent, which began publishing daily only three years ago, the new paper will try to make its way in an already highly competitive market.

While serious newspapers, both Sunday and daily, battle for readers, the industry is having to defend itself against encroachments on press freedom.

This week, a new quarterly, the British Journalism Review, will begin appearing. Its editor, Geoffrey Goodman, a distinguished former industrial journalist, says his publication will provide ``constructive invigilation'' and defend the right of newspapers and those who write for them to ``report events fairly, despite the unfair pressures that are often brought against them.''

At the same time, the British Press Council, which monitors the behavior of newspapers and gives readers a channel for making complaints, has acquired a new, live-wire chairman.

Louis Blom-Cooper, a leading barrister who has made a name for himself in 30 years of espousing human-rights causes, promises that his organization will play a much more vigorous role.

``We must defend the right of the press to play its proper part in our democracy,'' he says, ``but we must also make sure that the press does not abuse its role of reporting and commenting on events freely and fairly.''

A large part of the task facing Mr. Goodman and Mr. Blom-Cooper is that the national press in Britain falls into two distinct categories: quality newspapers of which the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, and the Guardian are leading examples; and mass-circulation tabloid papers such as the Daily Mirror, the Sun, the Daily Express, and the Daily Mail.

Goodman notes that the behavior of the Sun, which, like the Times, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and similar papers is a cause for concern. By invading individual privacy and sensationalizing stories, he says, the tabloid press lowers the esteem in which the press as a whole is viewed.

Fleet Street veterans find it difficult to recall a time when the industry has witnessed such rapid change.

Blom-Cooper sees his task as largely one of heading off moves to curb press freedom by passing new laws to prevent intrusions on privacy and to give people mentioned in newspapers a statutory right of reply.

The government has given the national press a year or two to get its house in order.

By that time, however, the Sunday newspaper circulation battle may be over.

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