Leading Article: With press freedom comes the need for self-discipline

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The Independent Culture
THIS WEEK has seen one flagrant breach of the Press Code after another. On Sunday, Lawrence Dallaglio was fitted up by misrepresentation (banned by clause 11) and "clandestine listening devices" (banned by clause 8) for alleged crimes committed long ago or in another country. On Monday, the comedian Lenny Henry was done over for adultery, since convincingly denied, in breach of clause 3 (privacy). On Tuesday, it was the former cricketer Ian Botham's turn, on the same charge, in breach of the same clause. And on Wednesday, a minor soon-to-be-member of the Royal Family had her privacy grossly invaded, with the publication of a 10-year-old picture of her, partly naked. Yesterday, the editor of The Sun apologised for upsetting her - what an unsurprising consequence of his action that was - in one of the more blundering U-turns of his short career.

This is the same David Yelland whose leader column declared: "We will not invade the privacy of gay people", three days after asking, "Are we being run by a gay Mafia?", in a pathetic attempt to justify the "outing" of Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister.

The powers of the Press Complaints Commission are too weak to deter these repeated intrusions into the private lives of public - or merely famous - people. The Commission should be able to impose fines on the publishers of newspapers found in breach of its code. Secondly, for all the useful work he does behind the scenes, warning and nudging, Lord Wakeham perhaps lacks the campaigning vigour - even the tabloid instincts - that are required to persuade the readers of newspapers that he is on their side.His successor should possess a more obvious passion both for the rights of a free press and for the defence of privacy.

There are only three possible responses to the Commission's failure to enforce its code. One is legislation. The second is to try to make self-regulation work better. The third is to give up, and let public tastes and market forces decide what should and should not be published. Public taste is an important factor; in the end it was public disapproval - coupled in all probability with the disapproval of the proprietor - which forced Mr Yelland to apologise. That humiliation will have a more salutary effect on him than any financial penalty. But it is not enough. He has not apologised to Mr Henry or Mr Botham, and Phil Hall, the editor of the News of the World, has certainly not apologised to Mr Dallaglio. Far from it; he has made specious use of the "public-interest override" clause of the Press Code, which defines the public interest as "detecting or exposing crime".

Privacy is a right, enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights - a right balanced by that of free expression. But the Convention protects privacy primarily from the power of the state, and so the question is: how should the right to privacy, especially of children, be protected from other powerful estates, such as the press and broadcasters?

Legislation is not the best answer, as we have seen in the Youth Justice Bill currently before Parliament, which goes too far in a sweeping ban on almost any reporting of children involved in crimes, even as witnesses or victims. Parliament should not, as a rule, attempt to police the press. But the press will lose public support for its case against legislation unless the Press Complaints Commission is strengthened significantly.

It is only the lack of judgement displayed by some tabloid editors which threatens self-regulation, the sensible way forward for a free but responsible press. We all deserve better than the self-serving apologia from Mr Hall of the News of the World and the feeble apology from Mr Yelland of The Sun.

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