BRITISH newspapers' freedom to decide their own ethical standards has been placed in extreme jeopardy, according to leading editors, judges, and government ministers.
They say a law defining a right of privacy and imposing severe penalties on newspapers that violate it is virtually certain to be placed before the House of Commons next year.
Renewed calls for press curbs have been triggered by the publication in two mass-circulation tabloid newspapers, the Sunday Mirror and the Daily Mirror, of secretly taken photographs of the Princess of Wales, exercising in a London gymnasium. The Princess is taking the extraordinary step of suing the papers for publishing the photos. She is also taking legal action against the owner of the health club where the pictures were taken.
Home Secretary Michael Howard describes the actions of the newspapers that published the photographs on successive days as ``thoroughly deplorable'' and says the government will give ``early consideration'' to a privacy law. Editors and newspaper owners say a measure to curb the press is likely to have the backing of Prime Minister John Major.
Mr. Howard got strong backing from Sir David Calcutt, a senior judge, who headed an inquiry into press freedom earlier this year. His committee recommended statutory control of the press, but the government shelved its findings, preferring to allow newspapers to continue regulating themselves. Self-policing ineffective
Sir David said that self-regulation of newspapers through the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which includes editors and members of the public, had been shown to be inadequate, and suggested passing some form of statutory control. His report specifically urged a total ban on the publication of photographs obtained illicitly.
Lord McGregor, chairman of the PCC, described the Mirror newspapers' decision to print the pictures, as ``an utter disgrace.'' In a string of statements and interviews, he urged the government to ``think hard and long'' before passing a privacy law directed at the media.
Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian newspaper and a leading PCC figure, however, is ``gloomy'' about the future of self-regulation. ``I fear a law to curb the press will now have government backing,'' he said.
The Mirror newspapers are currently in a bitter circulation battle with other tabloids, notably Rupert Murdoch's Sun and News of the World. David Banks, editor of the Daily Mirror, whose paper's use of the pictures was part of the battle, said he had no regrets.
By publishing photographs of Princess Diana, the two Mirror newspapers violated the PCC's code of conduct, of which they are signatories.
David Montgomery, head of Mirror Group Newspapers, confirmed that the photographs had been taken with a secret camera and purchased from the proprietor of the gym for a sum reported to be British pounds100,000 ($148,000).
Under attack from other newspaper owners, Mr. Montgomery said the PCC was ``finished'' and announced that his company was withdrawing from it. One PCC member described this action as ``likely to be highly damaging to the commission's reputation and future.'' Long tradition
Press freedom has no basis in English law, but the tradition of self-regulation is a sturdy one, extending back more than three centuries to the poet John Milton, who passionately defended the press's right to free expression in 1644 in his famous essay Areopagitica.
A law setting limits to what editors may publish would end that tradition. Libel laws in Britain are already strict, and a right-to-privacy law would be ``a heavy burden for the responsible press to have to carry,'' Mr. Preston said.
Peter Brooke, the Cabinet minister responsible for media matters, has indicated that the government will publish a report on privacy in January. Unless Mr. Major can be persuaded otherwise, government sources said, a privacy bill aimed specifically at newspapers is likely to follow a month or two later.
Advocates of press freedom have responded to the Mirror Group's rejection of self-regulation with a number of suggestions. Preston said one possibility was for the government to adopt into English law the European Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees a right to privacy.
Lord Lester, a leading barrister, said in a letter to the London Times that the Mirror newspapers had breached common law and that the right to privacy was enforceable without the need for new legislation.
But Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, held out little hope that newspapers could escape legal restraints. He said a lot of politicians had been ``waiting for the press to shoot itself in the foot,'' but that it had now ``shot itself in the head.''