Media: They published and we're all damned: Everything you ever wanted to know about those pictures, the Princess and the prospect of press regulation. Answers by Michael Leapman

Click to follow
The Independent Online
What's so wrong with the DAILY Mirror's pictures of the Princess of Wales anyway? Nothing, as pictures. They show a healthy young woman working out, apparently enjoying it, decently dressed in suitable clothing.

Why the fuss then? They were taken by a secret camera without her knowledge by the owner of the gym, Bryce Taylor, who admits that his action was 'calculated, surreptitious, sly' and done for the money. For this intrusion into the Princess's privacy he and the paper have been denounced by Buckingham Palace, Lord McGregor and a battery of politicians and leader writers; and sued by the Princess herself.

Who is Lord McGregor? The chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, a body set up three years ago, financed by the press, to impose order and discipline on itself, replacing the old Press Council. The PCC operates a Code of Conduct, drawn up by a committee of editors, which prohibits, among other things, taking pictures of people on private property without their permission. It's called self-regulation.

Does the MIRROR group subscribe to the PCC? Until Monday, when it pulled out in a fit of pique.

Has anyone done that before? Oddly enough, a few years ago David Montgomery, now chief executive of the MIRROR group, withdrew TODAY from the old Press Council, which had demanded an inquiry into the paper's acquisition by Rupert Murdoch. Montgomery returned to the regulatory fold only on Murdoch's insistence.

So Rupert Murdoch, publisher of the SUN and NEWS of the World, is a friend of press regulation? Funny old world, isn't it? Did you see the deputy editor of the SUN on television on Monday, talking about the need for restraint?

And keeping a straight face? Almost. Don't forget that the DAILY Mirror is engaged in a ferocious battle with the SUN, which has taken a circulation lead of 1.2 million by cutting its price to 20p (the DAILY Mirror costs 27p). Such considerations often colour the views of editors on questions of ethics.

How does the Mirror group justify printing the pictures? In sundry wondrous ways. First, Colin Myler, the SUNDAY Mirror editor, said he did it to combat rumours that the Princess was ill. When it was pointed out that the pictures were taken six months ago, the DAILY Mirror said the purpose was to expose a lapse in security, arguing that the secret camera could easily have been an IRA bomb.

And what does the DAILY Mirror call Lord McGregor? 'The arch buffoon.'

Is he? Well, no, but he does have some unfortunate mannerisms. He looks rumpled on television, does not handle interviewers well and has an embarrassing apocalyptic prose style: 'flagrant breach . . . dishonourable conduct' and last year, 'journalists dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people's souls'.

What are his good points? A deep suspicion of lawyers and a conviction that they should have no role in regulating the press. Politicians likewise.

But without statutory measures, how does he think you can control the wilder excesses of papers such as the MIRROR? By the condemnation of their peers. And he suggested on the radio this week that readers and advertisers might boycott the offenders.

Will they? Fat chance.

So what happens now? There will be renewed pressure for legislation from MPs who would love to be able to exert control on the press.

In other words, the loose cannon has shot itself in the foot? I see you are picking up the vocabulary already. Even if the press were a centipede, it would by now have no unshot feet left. Andrew Neil, editor of the SUNDAY Times, has said that this time it has shot itself in the head.

But wasn't he . . .? Yes, he was the Murdoch editor who provoked McGregor's 'dabbling their fingers' outburst. But that's beside the point.

Well, what is the point, exactly? That the Government may now be more inclined to introduce legislation to rein the press in.

Weren't they going to do that anyway? Well spotted. They have already indicated that they will make it a criminal offence to use long-lens cameras and bugging devices under certain conditions. And in July, the Lord Chancellor proposed a civil offence of intrusion into privacy, where a victim would have the right to damages.

So what tougher measures could they bring in? This year Sir David Calcutt QC, in his second report on the matter for the Government, proposed the creation of a tribunal with statutory powers to fine newspapers that broke the code. The indications from Whitehall were that this had been rejected but some Cabinet ministers are still believed to favour it. The current hoo-ha could strengthen the hand of this minority.

I take it Lord McGregor would not approve? No way. For one thing, the tribunal would probably be headed by a lawyer; and for another it would effectively put the PCC out of a job.

You've already pointed out that the foot-shooting has been going on for years. Why hasn't the Government acted before? The cynical answer is that the press is predominantly Conservative and ministers feel they owe their repeated election victories in part to its loyal support. They do not want to seem ungrateful nor jeopardise their prospects next time. More charitably, there are some in the Cabinet who genuinely accept the 'slippery slope' argument that privacy legislation would inhibit inquiries into financial scandals and other abuses that it is in the public interest to expose.

Would it? Not necessarily. It should be possible to draft a law that embodies a public interest defence.

And what does the public think? In a Mori poll published in September 1992, people were asked whether newspapers should be allowed to publish a photograph of a member of the Royal Family taken on private property without permission. Only 18 per cent believed they should and 53 per cent thought there should be more control over the tabloids.

Yet they still rush out and buy them? Of course.

Isn't that a bit . . . what's the word . . . hypocritical? That's the word, yes.

(Photograph omitted)