Press Conduct: Fleet Street told to mind its own business

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The Independent Online
The Press Complaints Commission has drawn up a new Code of Conduct for journalists following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Steve Boggan examines the code and asks editors whether it will make any difference .

Lord Wakeham, the Commission chairman, called the code "the toughest in Europe" and, after the death of Diana, perhaps it had to be. There was silence from many Fleet Street editors last night as they digested its contents and envisaged how, if at all, it would change life for their journalists. There are sure to be arguments about key parts of it.

The code, which comes into effect on 1 January, concentrates on 16 areas, from discrimination and financial journalism to protecting sources and privacy. The most tightening up occurs over privacy, harassment, treatment of children and intrusion into grief. Added as a rider, as mitigation for honourably breaking the tenets of the code, is a passage on what constitutes the public interest.

On privacy it says: "Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence. A publication will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent."

Use of long lenses is ruled out and it adds: "Note - Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy." Such a definition is bound to cause problems. On harassment, the code specifically bans persistent pursuit and re-emphasises the responsibility of editors to ensure material provided from outside sources is obtained in accordance with provisions of the code.

The code emphasises the right of children at school to be free from unnecessary intrusion, bans payments to minors and provides protection for the children of the famous. It says the public interest includes detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour, protecting public health and safety and preventing the public being misled.

Fleet Street hopes the code will deflect criticism it received after the death of Diana, when witnesses accused paparazzi on motorbikes of causing her driver to crash. It has emerged that the driver, Henri Paul, was several times over the drink-drive limit and had taken prescription drugs. Yet the press felt the need to tighten up its own voluntary code rather than submit to legislation. Lord Wakeham said: "I am pleased that the industry has responded so positively to the recommendations which I put forward in September." Sir David English, chairman of the industry's Code Committee, said: "I believe the important changes we have made ... show that press self-regulation can and does respond speedily to public concern. I am confident that editors and journalists ... will demonstrate their responsibility in observing the new provisions." Andrew Marr, editor of The Independent, said it looked "reasonable on paper" but was "ragged about the edges. It is a perfectly respectable architect's drawing rather than the building itself," he said. He was concerned, he said, to find how "a private place" would be defined.