IN an attempt to head off official curbs on their freedom, editors of Britain's nationally circulating daily and Sunday newspapers have agreed to abide by a code of conduct designed to control unethical reporting and intrusions on privacy. Under the scheme, the editors also will appoint readers' representatives or ombudsmen to adjudicate complaints that the code has been broken. Publication of the code is intended to answer charges by government ministers, members of Parliament (MPs), and public figures that the British press - especially the mass-circulation tabloid newspapers - too frequently behaves irresponsibly in reporting and commenting on events.
But the action of the editors does not satisfy Louis Blom-Cooper, chairman of Britain's Press Council, who has been carrying out his own review of newspaper ethics.
The Press Council, a watchdog body on which editors and members of the public sit, intends to publish its own ethical code soon, which Mr. Blom-Cooper says will be more comprehensive.
Few people in British public life doubt that tougher regulation of the newspapers - which were formerly published on Fleet Street but are now dispersed all over London - is necessary.
Earlier this year, two MPs introduced bills that would have required officially sanctioned controls on newspaper conduct. One bill proposed to safeguard the privacy of people threatened with the unwelcome attentions of journalists. Another suggested that readers should have a statutory right of reply.
Neither bill reached the statute book, but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher authorized an official statement that the press in the future would be ``on probation'' - a veiled threat that unless the papers mended their ways, the government would introduce legislation of its own.
The editors' response in November contained five key points:
Intrusion into private lives should always have a public-interest justification.
A fair opportunity for reply will be given when reasonably called for.
Mistakes will be corrected promptly and with appropriate prominence.
News will be obtained by straightforward means, and there will be no payment of criminals.
Irrelevant reference to race, color, and religion will be avoided.
Max Hastings, editor of the Daily Telegraph, said: ``It is good that there now seems universal recognition among editors that some of the more extravagant titles must change their ways or we shall all suffer - along with our readers - the consequences of hostile legislation.''
Andreas Whittam-Smith, editor of the daily Independent, described the code as ``historic.''
Blom-Cooper, however, said the editors' declaration was not enough. As well as issuing and observing the code of conduct, he said, all newspapers must help to support the Press Council, morally and financially. The code he is working on will set out to cover the whole of the newspaper and periodical industry, not just the Fleet Street papers.
Blom-Cooper may get the support he is seeking, since the national newspapers are currently under scrutiny from a government-appointed committee, headed by a leading barrister.
The committee will decide early next year whether a law to safeguard privacy is necessary.
There is strong parliamentary backing for tighter self-regulation by newspapers. A Gallup poll published on Nov. 27 showed that 74 percent of a group of 141 MPs questioned, thought that the ethics of the press had fallen in the past decade. Of these, one-third pinpointed intrusion into privacy. Another third complained about ``fictional'' stories appearing under the guise of reported fact.
The editors' decision to appoint readers' representatives or ombudsmen to deal with complaints from the public is controversial. The editor of the Financial Times, accepting the code of practice, said he would not be appointing an ombudsman because he saw it as his duty to deal personally with complaints from readers.
More than a year ago, the mass-circulation Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch, appointed its own ombudsman. But this did not prevent the paper from later being accused of invasions of privacy and of sensationalizing stories.
Express Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Express, the Sunday Express, and the London Evening Standard (the capital's only evening newspaper) said it had reservations about the rule concerning privacy.
Another press ``baron,'' Robert Maxwell, publisher of Mirror Group Newspapers, said he strongly supported the code of ethics. A week before publication of the code of conduct, he dismissed the editor of the mass-circulation Sunday People for publishing unauthorized photographs of Prince Harry, an heir to the throne.
Raymond Snoddy, a leading commentator on media affairs, said the real question mark hovering over the editors' code will be the extent to which the papers that signed it will implement it. Mr. Snoddy noted that the Sun relegated its announcement that it had signed the code to a single column on an inside page.
Other papers, he said, had presented it as front-page news. Nor does the code of conduct have anything to say about the pictures of unclothed women which several tabloid newspapers publish every day.
Editors of the mass-circulation press defend publication of the photographs as being what the readers want, and as necessary circulation builders. Critics of Fleet Street regard them as symptoms of the erosion of ethical values, but most concede that little that can be done about them.