'Di Spy' Photos Raise Specter of Press Regulation
O'Connor, Robert, Editor & Publisher
THE LATEST CONTROVERSY about tabloid coverage of a member of the British royal family once again has raised the specter of government regulation of the press.
Nov. 7, the Sunday Mirror, London, published photos of Princess Diana, estranged wife of Prince Charles, working out on an exercise machine in a private gymnasium in London. The newspaper ran a front-page headline: "Di Spy Sensation." During the next two days, the Daily Mirror ran more photos of Diana exercising.
The photos were taken in May with a hidden camera by Bryce Taylor, a director of the LA Fitness Center. He sold them to the Mirror for a reported 100,000 (about $150,000).
The Mirror's action was condemned by Lord McGregor, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, who called for advertisers to boycott the newspaper.
The Mirror responded by calling McGregor a "buffoon" and announcing that it was pulling out of the commission.
In an editorial headlined "A shabby crew of hypocrites," the Mirror said McGregor had commented without waiting for a complaint to be filed with the commission. The Mirror's move was seen as a possibly fatal blow to the commission, which was set up as a final chance for self-regulation by Britain's free-wheeling press.
The Mirror also received strong criticism from other newspapers. A column in the tabloid Evening Standard, London, accompanied by photos of Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd. chief executive David Montgomery and Mirror editor David Banks, carried the headline, "The men who should hang their heads in shame?"
The Sun, London, the Mirror's main rival, took full advantage of the situation. In an editorial headlined "Has the Mirror gone nuts?" the Sun attacked "Diana's disgusting treatment at the hands of the Mirror newspaper group?"
"A peeping tom is the lowest of the low," the Sun said. "Spying on someone's private moments is like stealing their soul."
In its editorial, the Mirror complained that the newspapers attacking its publication of the photos "are our commercial rivals?"
"Our rivals who live in the gutter could not wait to screech their disapproval of our publishing perfectly decent, tasteful photos of the Princess of Wales," the Mirror said.
Whatever the rhetoric, there is concern that by increasing the chances that a privacy law will be enacted, the Mirror's action could make it difficult for newspapers to investigate wrongdoing.
The press, London Guardian columnist Hugo Young wrote, "is showing itself to be the worst enemy of its own freedom. Plenty of MPs [members of Parliament] want to shackle the media. The government is being pushed queasily towards it. The public can be counted on not to resist it?
Peter Brooke, national heritage secretary, said the government is considering privacy legislation. In the meantime, he suggested, the press might consider appointment of a "voluntary ombudsman" to deal with complaints of intrusions of privacy. The orebudsman, he said, should have the power to recommend corrections and compensation.
Brooke said that while the press has improved its correction of inaccuracies, "in the area of privacy, it has made nothing like the same progress, and the fear is that we do not have a bedrock process to which everybody adheres and which will be properly policed, monitored and regulated."
Evening Standard columnist Steven Glover wrote that the Mirror's action raised questions about "the survival of a free and relatively unfettered press in this country. There are many MPs on government and opposition benches who are itching to apply statutory controls to newspapers and with the publication of these photographs, they will believe that they have their foot well in the door?"
Diana, who described the photos as a "gross intrusion," went to court. She asked that the photos and negatives be given to her lawyers and that both the Mirror and Taylor give full details of profits that they made from the photos. …