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Covering Princess Diana: British newspapers' candid coverage of the royal family's marital problems has the government contemplating press regulations.

British newspapers' candid coverage of the royal family's marital problems has the government contemplating press regulations

Coverage by British newspapers of the marriage of the Prince of Wales has raised a serious possibility of government regulation of the press.

The controversy began after the Sunday Times had began serializing a biography of Princess Diana, who married Prince Charles a decade ago in a glittering ceremony seen around the world. The book, written by Andrew Morton, a former tabloid royal reporter, paints a picture of a troubled marriage and a desperately unhappy young life who has made several suicide attempts. The author named his sources.

The story was picked up by mass-circulation tabloids, which gave it the full Fleet Street treatment. Angered by this coverage, the Press Complaints Commission issued a warning. It accused "sections of the press" of "dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people's souls."

Such coverage, the Commission said, recalled "the worst excesses of the 1980s," adding that its "continuance ... will threaten the future of self-regulation just at the time when it appears to be succeeding."

The Press Complaints Commission, which replaced the old Press Council at the beginning of 1991, represents an attempt to use self-regulation to curb the excesses of Britain's gutter press. British tabloids routinely distort the news and trample on privacy.

The Press Complaints Commission includes newspaper editors among its members. It was set up after the Calcutt Committee - which was itself appointed to consider the problem of press behavior - had recommended in 1990 that a final attempt be made "to establish an effective non-statutory system of regulation."

The failure of self-regulation, warned David Mellor, then a Home Office minister, could well bring government action. The press, he said, was drinking in the "Last Chance Saloon."

Mellor, who is now national heritage secretary, is due to review the performance of the Press Complaints Commission this month. He has promised to study the Commission's comments about the royal marriage "with great care. They've made a very clear statement of their view."

Tony Newton, leader of the House of Commons, said he felt confident that Mellor "will have the support of the whole House" in his review. Newton was responding to an observation by Patrick Cormack, a fellow Conservative, that "There are few less agreeable sights than that of a pack of greedy voyeurs on the make."

The criticism from the Press Complaints Commission had little immediate effect on three tabloids - The Sun, The Star and Today - which gave the story another day of prominence." |Suicidal' Di Poured Out Her Heart to Me," said the front-page headline in the Sun, followed by: "Pal says book is true." The front page of Today read: "Diana: It's All True."

The tabloid Daily Express defended the royal coverage in an editorial titled "Private Lives and Public Interest..." The press, the Express said, "has merely been doing its job in a free and open society."

The satirical magazine Private Eye, suggesting that some newspapers were trying to play the story both ways, printed excerpts from several papers. Among them was the same edition of the Daily Star, whose editor, Brian Hitchen, is a member of the Press Complaints Commission:

* "Last night Britain sighed with sadness for Di - and sent her a massive wave of sympathy as she faced incredible strain. Friends and MPs lashed the |shabby and intrusive' treatment she was receiving."

* "Royal Marriage in Torment - Special Report: Pages 2, 3, 4 & 5."

It is hard to overstate the British obsession with royalty. Millions of seemingly rational people apparently can see nothing wrong with lavishing enormous public resources on an extended family chosen for its role solely by birth. The royal style becomes the national ideal, in its upper reaches, British public life is a comic-opera land of knights and lords, created in never-ending batches by waves of the monarch's wand.

Sunday Telegraph columnist Sir Peregrine Worsthorne spoke for the values of this world when he called editor Andrew Neil and Sunday Times publisher Rupert Murdoch "moral dwarfs" for printing the Morton book. Worsthorne suggested that, in an earlier time, an editor behaving as Neil had done would have been horsewhipped, and he argued that it is not relevant whether Morton's account be true or not.

If the royal marriage really is in trouble, Worsthorne wrote, "surely the least excusable thing to do is to print all these lurid details, not because to do so is likely to undermine the monarchy, but because to do so is to behave like a barbarian."

The entrance of the photogenic young Princess Di to the public eye was a great boost for the tabloids' royal reporters, who are known collectively as the "rat pack." She was a fresh face in a family known for dowdiness and lack of physical appeal.

Magazine editors soon learned that covers with Diana's picture brought increased sales. Over the years, the tabloids have pursued the royal couple mercilessly, recounting every rumored strain in the marriage in great detail. They have depicted Diana as a neglected wife and Charles as an unbalanced dreamer who would rather brood in the Scottish Highlands than be with his family.

In the main, the royal response has been to accept this torment without murmur. With the exception of Princess Margaret's son, who successfully sued the Today newspaper for libel, they have avoided the courts.

Louis Blom-Cooper, who was the last chairman of the Press Council, believes that the current controversy may help bring in a privacy law, which he has long favored as not being "incompatible with a free press."

"I think that the events of the last few days have certainly made it more likely that there will be some kind of intervention by government or by Parliament," Blom-Cooper said.

He does not think the PCC has failed in its role. "Self-regulation demands self-discipline," he said. "If, in fact, there is any [government] intervention, it's really a failure of the press itself and not the Press Complaints Commission. It's really done rather a remarkably good job."

Roy Hattersley, a senior figure in the opposition Labor Party, argued that any privacy law should protect "small people rather than large ones.

"The important aspect of a privacy law," Hattersley said, "is to preserve the privacy of those people who choose to live entirely private lives, who sudddenly find their lives exposed in newspapers simply to add a few thousand to the circulation. People who live by the press have to take the risk of dying by the press."

However, Timothy Renton, the former government minister who established the Calcutt Committee, thinks that the Parliament should go much further than a mere privacy law.

"I thing it's clear that self-regulation hasn't worked," Renton said, "and, under those circumstances, I think that we are going to have to have a regulatory authority."

Renton envisages a body similar to the existing Broadcasting Standards Authority. Newspapers, editors and reporters would face fines for transgressions.

"The House of Commons, and the government, three years ago was willing to give the press another chance," Renton said. "That chance has been blown. The Press Complaints Commission, whilst doing their best, has once again shown themselves to be toothless."

Americans, raised with the First Amendment, might feel very uncomfortable at such casual talk of press legislation.

Hugh Stephenson, professor of journalism at City University in London, is also concerned. Stephenson said that the timing of the royal controversy - combined with the coming government review of self-regulation - has "brought the risk of statutory regulation a bit closer."

Legislation, he said, could take either of two forms: "One is the creation of a statutory offense of invasion of privacy. The second is turning the Press Complaints Commission, which is a self-regulatory body without statutory powers, into a quasi-governmental body with regulatory powers.

"If you give a body statutory powers," Stephenson observed, "then immediately it has to be appointed by the government. You can't give statutory powers to a private club. Is this country seriously going to be the first one in Eastern or Western Europe moving in the direction of government appointing regulatory bodies over the press? It's contrary to the spirit of the time."

Bill Hagerty, editor of The People, a mass-market Sunday tabloid, rejected the idea of press regulation.

"I don't think this will happen," he said. "I don't think it should happen. I think, indeed, if we have press legislation in this country, you're really talking about the stamping down of a free press and the general public would not really like the result of that."

While there is strong feeling on both sides of the House of Commons in favor of some kind of press regulation, the government of Conservative Prime Minister John Major might be wary of taking such a step. Most of the British tabloid press - with the notable exception of the Labor-supporting Daily Mirror - is unashamedly pro-Tory. Newspaper editors friendly to the Conservatives have received knighthoods and access to the inner circles of power. During the recent general election campaign, news coverage in the Conservative press dripped with vitriol against the Labor Party.

Much of the antagonism from within the Labor Party toward the tabloids centers on political coverage. Neil Kinnock, the outgoing Labor leader, has said that the press played a major part in Labor's defeat this year. Writing in The Independent newspaper, Labor MP Clive Soley argued that "the tabloids in the present form pose a threat to our democracy.

"My main criticism of the popular, or tabloid, papers," Soley wrote, "is that they act as Pravda did in the former Soviet Union. They either refuse to report dissenting views or treat them in a way that seeks to destroy credibility."

Sunday Times editor Neil defended the serialization of the Morton book in a televised sparring match with the Right Rev. John Taylor, the Anglican Bishop of St. Albans.

"The people that I meet in the street," Bishop Taylor said, "are frankly disgusted by the way in which this has been given so much media hype."

Neil argued that it was his responsibility to publish Morton's account of the royal marriage. "I, as journalist, presented with hard fact and people on the record telling me that the Princess of Wales has made several attempted suicide bids, I cannot as a journalist not print that."

Stewart Steven, editor of the Mail on Sunday, said that the PCC had acted too hastily in its criticism of the press coverage of the royal marriage. "They didn't ask for any evidence, he said. "They just reacted blindly and emotionally.

"The royal family," Steven added, "is - whether the royal family itself accepts it or not - a public issue."

Ross Benson, gossip columnist for the Daily Express, agreed. He argued that the royal family is an "institution made up of people, and, as we've discovered over the last few days, they are fallible. To expect this to be brushed under the red carpet I think is really extending things beyond what is acceptable."
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Author:O'Connor, Robert
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Jul 18, 1992
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