If doctors can be struck off, why not newspaper editors?

An effective press code

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Self-regulation involves punishment for those who break the rules. It is not merely aspirational - let's try to behave better in the future. Yet that seems to be the attitude of national newspapers which, last week, responding to widespread criticism, tightened up their code of practice to protect people's right to privacy, but did little about enforcement. This is a serious omission which I hope will be rectified.

Self-regulation cannot work without sanctions. In the City, for instance, the "voluntary" take-over code is made to stick because a persistent malefactor could find that no financial institution will do business with it. With, say, no banking facilities or insurance, it could become almost impossible to carry on.

The medical profession regulates itself through the General Medical Council. On the same day that Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, announced the revised code, a leading gynaecologist was given a severe admonishment and it was made clear that he could have been struck off the register had it not been for his admission of errors, changes he had made to his practice and the impressive testimonials submitted on his behalf. No similar ordeal is envisaged for newspaper owners or editors.

It is not as if the temptations to sin are easily resisted. For in writing about the private lives of the rich and famous and important, newspapers are using a formula similar to and as potent as the successful soap operas on television. The method is infinitely better at selling newspapers than news from the Labour Party conference.

Actually you do not have to be a film star or a billionaire or a member of the Royal Family to find yourself incorporated in the national soap opera directed by newspaper editors. Chief executives of companies making well-known products, headmasters, civil servants, directors of charities, anybody in any public position can find the break-up of their marriage, or their car crash, or their children's drug habits, or whatever, given national coverage. People who appear regularly on television are particularly vulnerable. An untoward incident in the private life of a weather forecaster will be considered news.

So effective is the national soap opera as a staple of newspaper coverage, that Lord Wakeham, in planning his next steps, should accept as a given that newspapers will want to get back as soon as possible to the state of affairs before Princess Diana's death. The brute fact is that invasion of privacy sells newspapers. That iron law has not been repealed. Newspapers will soon find ways of working round the new regulations. So, editors will reason, one can no longer pay minors for stories. But perhaps one could pay an adult intermediary; or pay generous expenses for coming up to London for the day; or perhaps the sports editor, as a reward, could take the young informant along with him when he goes to interview a famous footballer - who knows what ingenious methods will be employed?

Unless there is an effective deterrent, I think it is certain that newspapers will go back to their old habits, studiously obeying the literal meaning of the Press Code while finding ways to publish all they wish to reveal about private lives. As matters stand, the only deterrent is the likelihood of privacy legislation if newspapers excite public revulsion once more. However, Mr Major did not act when there was good cause and Mr Blair has just decided not to do so even when the circumstances are, politically, exceptionally propitious. The truth is that governments are not so much respectful of press freedom as frightened of press power. That is what government spin doctors are for - to tame or side-track the beast.

Thinking about a punishment which could apply to newspapers normally gets as far as considering fines - and then deciding they would not work. Rightly so. It would be difficult to get agreement on a tariff, and in any case, most newspaper companies belong to such large media empires that the deterrent effect would not be very great. Newspapers would take the same approach as French magazines which routinely break their country's privacy laws and see the fines they incur as a normal part of their costs.

The best approach is to focus on editors. Editors must come to understand that they could lose their jobs if they persistently flout the spirit of the new regulations (I have little doubt that they will observe the letter). As editing a national newspaper is the ultimate prize, a realistic threat of losing it would be a most powerful deterrent. The problem for Lord Wakeham is how to contrive this.

Three steps would give the Press Complaints Commission an effective means of punishment. The first essential one is that newspapers agree to publish adverse findings prominently on either their first or second pages, according to the direction of the Commission. Any editor who had to do this more than once would begin to feel uncomfortable. Second, the Commission must have the same power as other self-regulatory bodies have, which is to be able to declare that a particular editor is not a fit or proper person to hold his or her appointment. This is what happens in the City, and it is the equivalent of being struck off the register of medical practitioners.

Third, newspaper owners must be required personally to sign up to the new arrangements, so that they would be virtually compelled to fire editors who misbehaved. Until something along these lines is put in place, Lord Wakeham's job is only half done.

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