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No news, please, we're British.

My dear American friend,

They say that out of the mouths of babes drop pearls of wisdom; just wait till you hear the lurid gems that pop out of the mouths of British royalty:

Camilla Parker Bowles: Mmm, you're awfully good at feeling your way along.

Prince Charles: Oh, stop! I want to feel my way along you, all over you and up and

down you, and in and out...

Camilla: Oh

Charles: Particularly in and out ....

Camilla: I need you all the week, all the time.

Charles: Oh God. I'll just live inside your trousers .... It would be much easier.

Camilla: (laughing) What are you going to turn into--a pair of knickers? (Laughter

from both.) Oh, you're going to come back as a pair of knickers.

Charles: Or, God forbid, a Tampax, just my luck (laughter).

Camilla: You are a complete idiot! (She laughs.) Oh, what a wonderful idea.

Charles: My luck to be chucked down the lavatory and go on and on forever swirling

round the top, never going down

Unfortunately for admirers of the British monarchy, the preceding conversation is not from a compilation of bathroom humour. It is, rather, a secretly recorded telephone conversation between the future King of England and his alleged lover, a married mother of two.

Impossible, I hear you say. Shocking but true, I'm afraid. While American editors would have no problem publishing the royal scoop of the year, thanks to the First Amendment, British editors, defenders of open debate in a nation that champions democracy, were too frightened to print it.

In contrast with the Watergate tapes that toppled the Nixon presidency, the bawdy contents of the so-called Camillagate tape are humourous at best, sophomoric at worst. Yet the only British newspaper that had access to the tape apparently kept the transcript under wraps for several months until it was scooped by an Australian magazine in January.

You may think this is all rather silly, but the question of whether to publish such material is part of a much larger problem: the new attempts by the British government to muzzle the domestic press.

British journalists are already effectively restrained by stringent libel laws, and when it comes to reporting on the government, we are severely hampered by the Official Secrets Act. As a former attorney general once wrote, the Official Secrets Act "makes it a crime without any possibility of defence to report the number of cups of tea consumed per week in a government department or the details of a new carpet in a minister's room."

But this isn't enough for the Conservative British government. Around the time the Camillagate transcript was finally published, the government released the second of two reports on the press by lawyer and Cambridge University professor Sir David Calcutt. In it, Calcutt recommended stringent legal curbs on what he considered wanton violation of privacy laws.

Rumour has it that London's Dally Mirror refrained from publishing the Camillagate ranscript because it feared doing so would provoke Calcutt to recommend even more severe sanctions. But when the Australian magazine New Idea printed the transcript on January 13, and the small British regional paper Kent Today followed up days later, Editor Colin Myler of London's Sunday Mirror decided to disclose to his millions of readers the sordid details of the indiscreet royal pillow talk. Of course he knew he would offend the royal family, the government and many readers. The British obsession with etiquette and maintaining an image of perpetual decency-and the resulting hypocrisy--transcends all walks of life.

"Yes, I will be criticised. Yes, I will be damned," wrote Myler. "But why should the people of Britain be treated with such hypocrisy and contempt? Isn't it sickeningly ironic that the people who sit in Parliament--representing you and me--huddle in Commons corners like naughty schoolboys chortling over the transcript? The same people who sit in moral judgment on the media. The same people who want to implement the most savage measures ever proposed to fetter the most respected press in the world?"

Meanwhile, it was those "savage measures" suggested by Calcutt that had Myler's colleagues foaming. "Calcutt Screws the News" and "Calcutt Charts a Perilous Road Ahead" were two of the milder headlines denouncing proposed statutory regulations that would cut off some of the press' freedoms.

As for who Calcutt is and what he has done to back our journalists into a corner, I'll explain in a bit.

FIRST, LET ME QUICKLY map out the difference between the U.S. and U.K. newspaper industries. In America, almost all of the most influential newspapers are what we British would consider regional. The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, for example, are primarily targeted at their cities' residents. They just happen to be known and respected nationally.

In the United Kingdom, readership of regional papers is limited to their distribution area. To augment them, we have more than 20 national daily and Sunday newspapers. What sets them apart is their proprietorship, the social class of their readers, their political leanings and whether they are tabloids or quality newspapers--the broadsheets.

At one end of the spectrum are tabloids such as the Sun, News of the World and Daily Mirror, which are targeted at the working class and thrive on sex scandals, celebrity gossip and photos of semi-clad women.

The "qualities," which include the Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph and Financial Times, rival the New York Times in seriousness and breadth.

Virtually all the nationals support the right-wing Conservative (Tory) Party, except for the Daily and Sunday Mirror, which 'traditionally have pledged their allegiances to the socialist Labour Party. The Guardian, another daily, is mostly left of centre.

In between are the "quality tabloids," such as the Daily Express and Daily Mail, which are aimed at the middle- and upper-middle classes.

Here, unlike in the United States, the press is monitored by a reguiatory body. The Press Council was launched nearly 40 years ago to administer an ethics code for the industry. Funded by news organizations, it quickly turned into a toothless watchdog whose judgment and decisions were ridiculed or ignored. Finally, in January 1991, it was abolished and replaced by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which is also an independent organization.

The 14-member commission meets monthly to discuss readers' complaints and produces a report on its decisions. Although the PCC lacks the legal authority to enforce its rulings, when a complaint is upheld, the newspaper or magazine concerned is obliged to print the outcome. Like its predecessor, the PCC has been accused of being spineless. The accuser: none other than the Tory government, which has returned to power four times in a row thanks largely to the press' support. Now, the PCC may be doomed.

IT SEEMS AS IF THE British press has no friends. The recent calls to curtail its power have come from both the general public and the Establishment.

Ordinary Brits whose reputations have been smeared by distorted news coverage blame the country's flawed media ownership law. This has given Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media mogul who owns the Fox Network, Boston Herald and the New York Post (again), the unique power that can only come with the control of five nationally distributed quality (the Times and Sunday Times) and tabloid newspapers (the Sun, Today and News of the World) and a satellite television network with six channels.

Dennis Potter, one of Britain's most acclaimed television writers, was recently savaged by Murdoch's three tabloids. He responded in kind. "There is an avid, wet-mouthed downmarket slide in Britain's tabloid press that began its giddiest descent on the day marauding Rupert Murdoch acquired the Sun and dragged so many others toward the sewers...," he spat.

Potter isn't the only Brit who believes he's been mistreated, but it is complaints from politicians and the royal family that have prompted the government to take action. That action manifested itself in the form of the two Calcutt reports that, to the horror of my colleagues, recommended statutory regulations for the press.

British journalists argue that they are already hampered, especially in comparison with their counterparts in the United States. Britain has no written constitution, no Bill of Rights and no Freedom of Information Act. We are obsessed with secrecy. Any civil servant, from the prime minister's private secretary to a Parliament maintenance worker, must sign the Official Secrets Act.

Members of Parliament have made nearly 10 unsuccessful attempts to pass legislation providing for a more open government and greater public access to information. Before 1975, former cabinet members could not even write about their work in their autobiographies. Consequently, journalists have had to rely on leaks for major political stories.

The British press is also held in check by libel laws that are among the most restrictive in the world. Unlike the legal standards in America, British plaintiffs need not prove falsity first; they only need to show that a printed statement injured their reputation.

The result can sometimes be downright barmy. For example, two publications printed rumours that implied Prime Minister John Major was having an extramarital affair with a woman named Clare Latimer; both have sued. Major's attorneys argue that repeating unfounded rumours is libelous. Sceptics doubt Major has a case, but as one daily, the Independent, has pointed out, the lawsuit immediately scared the press off the story.

IT IS AGAINST this rather repressive backdrop that Calcutt published his reports-the first in June 1990, followed by a review this past January.

The first report was commissioned by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who said she was appalled by overzealous reporters intruding on citizens' privacy, exposing secrets and frequently exaggerating their findings. Dismissing the Press Council's standards, Thatcher invited Calcutt to investigate the nation's journalistic practices, especially those concerning privacy, and recommend what might be done to improve them.

Britain has no specific legal guarantees for privacy. That is why Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, turned to the French courts to win record damages of pound60,000 after Paris Match magazine and London's Daily Mirror published photographs of her sunbathing topless with her "financial adviser," John Bryan. (He was awarded pound25,000.) The Mirror argued that the public should know how the duchess, whose living expenses are paid by the taxpayers, spends her income.

In his 1990 report, Calcutt suggested that Britain emulate the French and outlaw "the most blatant forms of physical intrusion." He also urged that the Press Council be disbanded and replaced by a more authoritative and efficient regulatory agency. The PCC was launched in January 1991 and given 18 months to prove itself. If it failed to check the unsavoury practices of the industry, Calcutt said the government should introduce a statutory press tribunal to handle readers' complaints.

During what was effectively the council's probationary period, however, the royal family and certain public figures committed some calamitous social blunders that any newspaper editor would have splashed on the front page:

* David Melior, then-secretary of National Heritage, the government agency responsible for press matters, was revealed to be committing adultery with a Spanish actress and forced to resign.

* A transcript of the "Squidgy Tapes," an alleged telephone conversation between Princess Diana and a lover, was published.

* Norman Lamont, the chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the most powerful members of the government's cabinet, was revealed to have used taxpayers' money to settle the legal fees incurred when he evicted one of his tenants, a sex therapist called Miss Whiplash.

What infuriated the politicians even more was that the qualities, which normally distance themselves from sensationalism, joined in.

It was the Independent that disclosed that the first child of Virginia Bottomley, the secretary of health who had recently extolled the virtues of contraceptives, had been born out of wedlock. And the Sunday Times serialized Andrew Morton's "Diana: Her True Story" disclosing that the princess was unhappy with her marriage and suffered from bulimia. The editors argued that the stories were in the public's interest. Most of us thought they were also a bloody good read.

Calcutt, in his recent report, said the PCC has been lax, ineffective and not independent enough. Voluntary self-regulation has not worked, he determined, and he was pessimistic about progress: "Nothing that I have learnt about the press has led me to conclude that it would now be willing to make, or that the press would in fact make, the changes which would be needed."

Calcutt proposed that the government establish a statutory code of practice. He asked for a press complaints tribunal and a government-appointed judge with the power to hold hearings for complaints, issue injunctions, dictate corrections and apologies and fine newspapers for criminal offences, including the use of bugging devices and long-range lenses. He also proposed introducing a telephone hot line for readers to voice complaints.

Calcutt's message seemed to be: Priority should be given to maintaining press standards, not defending the freedom of the press.

Outraged journalists denounced the proposals as draconian. Censorship through the back door, they cried.

I talked to Tony Loynes, the publisher and editor of the media industry mouthpiece, the UK Press Gazette, who says he doesn't believe Calcutt's attack on the PCC is justified. "I admit there is room for criticism, but no one will ever be satisfied," he says. "The politicians feel that the PCC does not do enough; and the press feels that it has gone as far as it can without shooting itself in the foot. Because we must ask ourselves the degree to which the press volunteers to censor itself.

"The PCC has made significant improvement on the old Press Council's work...," he adds. "But the commission does need to do more to dear the grey areas, such as the difference between what is in the public's interest and what interests the public."

Loynes also points out that other professions, such as the legal and financial sectors, are self-regulated. Why should the press be made an exception?

Regardless of Calcutt's findings, Peter Brooke, the current National Heritage secretary, says the government is reluctant to impose statutory regulations. He recently said he hopes "that genuine and far-reaching reforms will be introduced in the current self-regulation."

On another front, Parliament has quietly been considering bills that could drastically affect the press' working practices. Mark Fisher of the Labour Party has proposed a "right to know' bill that is similar to America's Freedom of Information Act. It has won wide support. Another Labour politician, Clive Soley, has introduced a bill that would set up an independent press commission to review complaints about factual errors. Support for this bill is minimal. There is also talk that libel laws might be changed. But suggestions that citizens might be provided with government-sponsored legal fees to sue the press have been dropped.

The debate on press and privacy will never be easily resolved. Three government inquiries over the past 30 years have each concluded that defining the fight to privacy in Britain is far too complex for any single court. Naturally, that didn't stop a parliamentary committee from recommending in late March a privacy law that would exempt journalists only if they can prove they acted "in the public interest"---a requirement open to myriad interpretations. The committee also recommended giving the PCC power to levy fines rather than only require written reprimands for breaches of its ethics code. Furthermore, the committee suggested that the commission establish an ombudsman to field complaints before controversial articles go to press.

Peter Stothard, the editor of the Times, has more or less pinned down the most probable reaction the British press will have to this proposed law. "New rights to protect privacy can be expected to bring most benefit to the most powerful and corrupt," he says. "It is hard to imagine a news privacy law which the Times would not oppose."

I'll drop you a line when the air clears.

Koranteng is the news editor of the Financial Times' Music & Copyright newsletter. Her articles have appeared in the Economist, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Independent and Business Week.

Policing the U.K. Press

The idea of a regulatory body--self-appointed or otherwise--dictating to the U.S. press what it can print would seem outrageous. In the United Kingdom, however, the activities of the print media are constantly being scrutinized by an industry-appointed authority called the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

Pressured by a mistrustful government, British publishers set up the PCC two years ago to ensure that newspapers do not step over the boundaries of what is considered permissible-such as invading a citizen's privacy or misrepresenting facts. If any newspaper breaks the rules, the PCC investigates the complaint to allow the aggrieved individual an opportunity for redress.

In its first 18 months, the PCC received 2,069 complaints. It rejected about 40 percent of these as unjustified. Less than 10 percent required a full investigation and only 51 complaints were upheld.

Below are four complaints considered by the PCC and its decisions:

* The Daily Sport, a national tabloid newspaper, claimed that Malcolm Forbes, the late U.S. media mogul, died of AIDS. The article, headlined "Wiped Out By AIDS," was published in November 1991.

Following complaints by Forbes' attorneys, the newspaper's editor published what the PCC said was an insignificant and inadequately worded correction. The newspaper refused to apologize in print. The complaint was upheld, but the paper was not fined.

* The Ramblers' Association, a group advocating the preservation of land for walkers, said the Sunday Express published an article that implied the association had caused a family to lose its home. The article, published in April 1992, said the house was located near an ancient public footpath. The family, which decided to move, had difficulty selling the house, Potential buyers were put off by the footpath controversy. The association said the article inaccurately presented them as responsible for the family's eventual homelessness.

The PCC found that the article contained errors and misleading statements. It also found that the story quoted an anonymous association member who in fact was a Sunday Express reporter. The complaint was upheld.

* In a PCC ruling last October, Edna Dwight, the widow of the father of rock star Elton John, filed a complaint against the Sun. She argued that an article, "Elton's feud goes to the grave," inaccurately stated her late husband had quarreled and had a failing out with his son. The newspaper offered Dwight a right to reply, but she did not accept.

The complaint was rejected. However, the PCC did discover inaccuracies in the report. The reporters, it appears, did not check information in newspaper dippings used for background. The commission cautioned the Sun against excessive dependence on previously published articles for background material.

* Three national daily newspapers and one regional covered a health inspector's report that disclosed that rat droppings, a mouse's head and rotting food had been found in a restaurant's kitchen. The restaurant's management charged that the newspapers' reports were inaccurate, arguing that the debris and feces were actually found 20 metres away from the kitchen in the refrigeration room and rear storeroom. The complaint was rejected.

Europe's Tough Press Laws

For British journalists, the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment provides the ideal legislative guideline for regulating the press. They also yearn for a Freedom of Information Act to empower the press to fully inform the public in cases where the government is not forthcoming.

Across the English Channel, however, British press freedom are the envy of many European journalists. Apart from the Scandinavian and Dutch news media, many European journalists are shackled by legislation that discourages invostigative reporting.

Germany: The German national constitution guarantees a free press. Although nothing like the Freedom of Information Act exists, journalists have open access to government documents. The law also protects journalists' sources. Censorship is outlawed and prior restraint by aggrieved individuals is allowed in only exceptional cases. Citizens, however, are legally entitled to a right to reply to inaccurate reporting. A newspaper is obliged to print the reply in the same place and at the same size as the original article. The law considers images of an individual as private property; publishing photos of people without permission is a criminal offense. Libel laws are strict, with the burden of proof on the defendant. But compensatory fines are never as high as those awarded in British or American courts.

France: The national privacy law in France is among the strictest in Europe, and the French press is constantly lobbying for relaxation of the legislation. It forbids press invasion of privacy, irrespective of whether the information obtained is true and of public interest. Nor can a photo be published without the subject's consent. The law encourages citizens to take advantage of the right to reply; their responses must be published in the same place in the paper and take up the same amount of space as the original articles. All complaints are adjudicated in court, forcing the press to be cautious about launching investigations.

Belgium: Belgium's law on right to reply may be the most absurd. An offending newspaper must print any correction or clarification demanded by any person mentioned in an article, even if the combined letters take up an entire page of the publication and even if the original report was not obviously offensive. The libel laws are equally strict and the press is frequently taken to court.

Sweden: The Scandinavian countries (and the Netherlands) have the most liberal press laws in Europe. Consequently, there are few criminal or civil cases involving the press. In 1766, Sweden became the first country in the world to legally establish freedom of the press. And in 1916, Swedes established the world's first self-regulatory press council.

Swedish law explicitly forbids the disclosure of journalists' sources, even voluntarily, unless state security is threatened. The law also allows anyone, including foreigners, access to state documents.
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Author:Koranteng, Juliana
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:3648
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