By: Robert O'Connor Mirror's publication of Princess Diana workout photos could lead to British government regulation of the press sp.
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 ombudsman, 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. The request set up a possible future claim for damages. Hurried negotiations between the Mirror and the Press Complaints Commission brought a somewhat chastened Mirror back into the commission. The newspaper group promised to abide by the commission's decisions. "We now withdraw any criticism that we have made of the PCC," MGN said in a statement, "and apologize to their chairman for any remarks he may have found offensive." For his part, McGregor rescinded his call for an advertising boycott of the Mirror. The Mirror wanted McGregor to try to get other newspapers to cease attacks. In reply to this, he said he trusted that "all newspapers will create an unprejudiced environment in which the future complaints will be heard fairly." The commission also will seek to have its code of conduct written into the contracts of journalists. The code says, "Intrusions into a person's private life are not generally acceptable, and publication can only be justified when in the public interest." Guardian editor Peter Preston also would like to see editors covered by the code of conduct. This, he argued, would "also give editors some protection against any pressures from above ? commercial pressures ? to break the code." The tabloids are not above using fanciful public interest defenses to justify decisions to print material. The Mirror, for example, solemnly reported that the photos of Diana showed a potential security lapse. In 1992, the People, London, another MGN tabloid, defended its coverage of the extramarital affair of a cabinet minister by saying his exertions had left him too tired for his official duties. Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, London, rejected the idea of a privacy ombudsman. He argued that privacy involves only 7% of complaints brought before the Press Complaints Commission. A privacy ombudsman, he said, would be a "giant edifice when the vast majority of the population regard it as a very minor problem." Preston noted that many of the complaints about press intrusion have involved the royal family. "I would welcome the opportunity," he said, "for an animated discussion with Buckingham Palace on how the press is to cover the royal family." The Independent, London, predicted that the government, concerned about the scope of a privacy law, has decided to put off formal legislative action on the issue for a year. The government, the paper added, is considering creation of three new criminal offenses: entering or remaining on private property without permission, taking photographs on private property without permission and bugging. Also, the Independent said, invasion of privacy victims likely will be allowed to sue for damages. The paper said newspapers would retain a public interest defense under any new law. During the next year, the Independent said, "Ministers will be watching closely the progress of moves to make the Press Complaints Commission more effective." The Mirror's sensitivity to the criticism that it received about the publication of the photos may have stemmed from worries about possible adverse effects on the company's share price and any competitive advantage that might have been gained by the Sun, with which it has a circulation war. Such touchiness certainly is out of tune with the rough and tumble ways of Fleet Street, where strident abuse among tabloids is part of the game and is neither resented nor remembered. Under the headline "Jeers for fat red tomato of Mirror," the Sun reported public treatment of Mirror royal reporter James Whitaker as follows: "Crowds cheered Di yesterday ? then jeered the Daily Mirror's podgy royal reporter." Banks exhibited a fairly relaxed view of the photos controversy in an interview with an Australian radio reporter. Referring to Taylor's action, he said, "It was a particularly sneaky trick, frankly, and the bloke who did it has got to go down as one of the ratbags of the year." Challenged by the radio reporter, Banks obligingly conceded that he also was a "ratbag and would score around a seven "on a scale of ratbaggery." ? (The Mirror's archrival, the Sun, took a jab at its competitor in a huge front-page headline Nov. 9.) [Photo and Caption]