Privacy argument 'should be kept in proportion': This is the quarterly report of Sir Gordon Downey, the Independent's Reader Representative

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The Independent Online
SELF-REGULATION of newspapers is again under scrutiny following the recent coverage of events in the private lives of public figures.

As Readers' Representative, I have a good view of self-regulation at work on the Independent. Decisions on coverage are a matter for the editors, not me. But if a lapse of standards occurs, or is thought to occur, readers are not slow to complain; and the way in which a newspaper deals with readers' complaints is a good indicator of its attitude to self-regulation generally.

It is interesting that the challenge to self-regulation usually surfaces on the issue of privacy. The newspapers' Code of Practice does, of course, go far wider. Privacy is only one of 16 articles dealing with such issues as accuracy, the need to distinguish between fact and conjecture, misrepresentation, financial journalism and children in sex cases. Yet it is privacy which raises hackles, especially the privacy of public figures.

I make the point only that the debate should be kept in proportion. Inaccurate reporting or misrepresentation can be just as harmful as an invasion of privacy. And the privacy of a private individual is just as valuable as that of a public figure. Indeed, a public figure must expect closer inspection, particularly on any aspect of his or her life which might have a bearing on job performance. This would surely be a matter of public interest.

Some of the recent controversies have passed the Independent by. In particular, there was minimal coverage of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales. This was consistent with the Independent's normal stance that the activities of the Royal Family would only be reported if they met criteria applying to other people in the public eye. The few readers who wrote in welcomed this reticence.

Similarly the stories about Mr Mellor have provoked few complaints. Here, there seems to have been a general recognition that there is a public interest argument for publication. We received a number of letters from readers who felt that, once the allegations had been made, they had to be pursued so long as Mr Mellor retained his responsibilities for the press - which they saw as an unacceptable conflict of interest.

Readers were less convinced over the justification for the story about Mrs Bottomley. The editor received over a hundred complaints (including one from her husband) that the newspaper was off-side. A number of these letters were published. This resulted in some heart-searching and an acknowledgment that Mrs Bottomley's son should not have been named. As a result, Mr Bottomley withdrew his complaint to the Press Complaints Commission - which is often a good test of whether the complaint has been properly handled.

The fact that readers take the trouble to send us their views is wholly welcome. Although many letters will inevitably be complaints (fewer people write to say how satisfied they are), they provide valuable feedback of what is, and is not, likely to cause offence. I can assure readers that their letters are being carefully considered and taken into account.

This does not, of course, mean that the Independent can, or should, avoid all offence. In the present context it is important that newspapers should not feel too inhibited in reporting on politicians and others who, by choice, have put themselves in the public eye. The dangers of censorship, external or self-imposed, are obvious. There is a fine line between what is, and is not, in the public interest. So long as a newspaper tries to act responsibly, I am not sure that readers can ask for more.