Britain's mass-circulation tabloid newspapers may face tough new restrictions to stop them from invading the privacy of high-profile individuals following a series of controversial publications.
Opinion polls show three out of four newspaper readers favor laws to curb the deliberate entrapment of people by reporters and other perceived media excesses.
But government officials say Prime Minister Tony Blair hopes editors will fall into line without the need for legislation. Mr. Blair, they say, favors a more aggressive role by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a watchdog body set up by the newspaper industry.
Although Britain has no written Constitution, and thus no constitutional guarantee of free speech, it has a long tradition of press freedom.
Pressure on the tabloids has intensified, however, after "stings" in which reporters tricked individuals into admitting illegal acts, and the publication of semi-naked photographs of Sophie Rhys-Jones, bride-to-be of Prince Edward, Queen Elizabeth's youngest son.
Home Office Minister Lord Williams said Sunday that the PCC should launch investigations into newspaper stings and invasions of privacy even if there have been no complaints about offending stories. At present, the commission acts only when a complaint has been lodged.
Breaking privacy 'code'
British newspaper editors sign up to a PCC code that says "everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life." The only justification for invasion of privacy, the code says, is if it can be shown there is a powerful "public interest" reason.
The code was strengthened following the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, who had been a particular target of British tabloids.
In the past two weeks, however, the News of the World, a Sunday tabloid, and its daily stablemate the Sun (both owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch), have spectacularly infringed on the code.
News of the World reporters posing as business executives coaxed the captain of England's rugby football team into boasting of having taken and trafficked in illegal narcotics. The rugby captain has since resigned but now denies taking or selling drugs.
Days later, the Sun printed lurid allegations about the private lives of a former captain of England's national cricket team and a popular television comedian. It then published the intrusive photographs, taken more than 10 years ago, of Ms. Rhys-Jones - an act that prompted a bitter complaint from Buckingham Palace and a full-page apology by the Sun's editor.
Geoffrey Goodman, editor of the respected British Press Review, points to "a clear contradiction" between the results of public opinion polls suggesting newspaper readers resent press intrusions and "the undeniable fact that millions of people read such stories.
"It's a clear case of British hypocrisy," he says.
A poll in the latest Sunday Observer found 77 percent of those interviewed wanted a privacy law "preventing the media reporting some aspects of the private lives of people in the public eye." Only 18 percent disagreed.
Blair, however, is reluctant to introduce legislation curbing the media, officials say. The prime minister also has close links with Mr. Murdoch, who could be expected to complain bitterly and use his newspapers to support his complaints, if such laws were introduced.
Bid to boost sales?
Mr. Goodman, the editor, notes that the sudden rash of infringements on the PCC code "could be the result of falling tabloid newspaper circulations and an attempt by publishers and editors to boost sales in a shrinking market."
Over the past decade, the combined circulation of Britain's 10 national newspapers has fallen by around 10 percent. Sales of tabloid newspapers have fallen even more sharply.
But even if the Blair government refuses to introduce privacy legislation, tabloids soon are likely to find themselves vulnerable to legal complaints if they continue to intrude into private lives.
Britain is due to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into its own laws. Lord Chancellor Irvine, the head of Britain's legal system, has warned editors that this will lead to privacy legislation "entering Britain through the back door."