Crackdown on the British Press: In the Wake of Scrutinizing Coverage of the Royal Family, the British Government May Seek Stringent Curbs on Press Freedom

By O'Connor, Robert | Editor & Publisher, February 13, 1993 | Go to article overview
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Crackdown on the British Press: In the Wake of Scrutinizing Coverage of the Royal Family, the British Government May Seek Stringent Curbs on Press Freedom


O'Connor, Robert, Editor & Publisher


AFTER EXTENDED TABLOID newspaper coverage of the private lives of senior politicians and members of the royal family, the British government is preparing legislation aimed at controlling the press.

The announcement, by National Heritage Secretary Peter Brooke, came after a lengthy study by David Calcutt, a senior lawyer, into whether the Press Complaints Commission -- established at the beginning of 1991 -- had succeeded in curbing abuses by the press. Calcutt concluded that it had not.

He argued in his report that "The industry, in setting up the Press Complaints Commission, has gone as far as it is prepared to go, but it has not gone far enough"

The government, Brooke told the House of Commons, agrees "that the Press Complaints Commission, as constituted at present, is not an effective regulator of the press. It is not truly independent, and its procedures are deficient?"

The government is expected to support Calcutt's recommendation that a criminal law be enacted against trespass and that the use of surveillance equipment on private property be made illegal without the permission of the owner.

The law might even ban the taking of photographs with telephoto lenses on private property. Also, a civil statute is likely to be created to cover infringements of privacy, but any new press law is expected to contain a public interest defense.

"Measures on these lines," Brooke said, "are now necessary to signal society's strong condemnation of this kind of behavior and to deter similar instances in the future?"

The aim of legislation, Calcutt wrote, should be "to enable the press to operate freely and responsibly and to give it the backing which is needed, in a fiercely competitive market, to resist the wildest excesses."

However, the government did not endorse Calcutt's recommendation that a statutory press tribunal be created, with the power to assess fines, award compensation and prevent the publication of offending material.

Newspaper editors reacted with some relief that the government rejected the creation of a tribunal.

"We'll have to look at what comes forward point by point," said Peter Preston, editor of The Guardian. "I am very glad, however, that apparently the government is not going for a statutory tribunal. I think that's the substantial element of unfairness in Calcutt?"

Andreas Whirtam Smith, editor of The Independent, has warned that any new law of trespass "shouldn't be applied only to journalists. Otherwise, we end up in a situation where there are antipress laws but no press freedoms?"

Ann Clwyd, national heritage spokeswoman for the opposition Labor Party, warned the House of Commons that "under no circumstances will the Labor Party support legislation which prevents the proper scrutiny of the lives of the rich and powerful, including public figures, such as politicians, business tycoons and members of the royal family?"

Calcutt's study, which began last summer, was his second investigation of the British press. A report he issued in 1990 led to the creation of the Press Complaints Commission, which was intended to be a final attempt at press self-regulation.

The atmosphere that led to Calcutt's second appointment was fed by a comment last year by PCC chairman Lord McGregor after press coverage of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales.

A biography of the princess, serialized in the Sunday Times, depicted her as a deeply unhappy and neglected young wife who had tried more than once to kill herself.

After the tabloids picked up the story with customary enthusiasm, McCregor accused "sections of the press" of "dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people's souls?" The continuance of such intrusiveness, he warned, "will threaten the future of self-regulation just at the time when it appears to be succeeding?"

It has since emerged that Princess Diana had cooperated with the biography and had also orchestrated much of the coverage of her marital difficulties.

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