Leading Article: Private lives, public interest

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THE privacy of public persons - and their families - has been invaded by the press on several occasions this year. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, and now David Mellor, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, have all been accused of deviating from what are deemed appropriate social norms. The marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales has been picked over in painful detail. As a result, the possibility of privacy legislation is back on the agenda.

The British public reacts in a complex, not to say hypocritical, manner to scandalous tales that invade the privacy of public figures. A great many people are shocked and contemptuous of the press when the personal affairs of someone such as Mr Mellor are spread around the news-stands. This paper received almost 100 letters following our recent disclosure that Mrs Bottomley had given birth to a child some months before marrying the father. Almost without exception, they criticised our decision. We claimed that there was genuine public interest, because Mrs Bottomley had just launched a campaign warning of the dangers of teenage pregnancy. After discussions with her husband, we accepted that we were wrong to have invaded the privacy of their son by publishing his name. Mr Bottomley withdrew his complaint to the Press Complaints Commission.

At the same time, many newspaper readers are shocked and angered when they discover that public figures are not perfect. It may be unrealistic to expect exemplary behaviour from politicians, but it is not an inherently unworthy demand - especially when it is customary for politicians to market themselves as honest family men or women with conventional marriages. Few election addresses read: 'Mr Bloggs is married with four young children and a mistress.'

Equally, many readers are entertained by the salacious. Sales leap up when the great and the good are caught out. This is why the tabloids devote considerable time and effort to researching such stories. In this moral quagmire, the press attempts to play by the letter of the rules drawn up by editors and administered by the commission. These differentiate between tittle-tattle that may be of interest to the public and items genuinely in the public interest. The People justified the Mellor story on the grounds that his extra-marital activity had left him too 'knackered' to perform his ministerial duties. The commission will shortly state whether there was, in its view, a public interest sufficient to excuse the invasion of the Mellors' privacy.

The Government should not allow recent cases to stampede it into a commitment to privacy legislation. Ironically, Mr Mellor, an able and liberal-minded politician, whose brief includes the media, has been sceptical about such legislation. His instincts are correct. Countries that have privacy laws usually have weak libel laws. Ours are draconian.

Moreover, countries which that have legislated to protect privacy - France, Germany and some parts of the United States, for example - do not necessarily boast a more elevated press. In America, muckraking remains a fine art, as presidential candidates well know. In France, where sexual peccadilloes are seldom reported, it is primarily because of a tolerant sexual culture. The challenge for reformers is to change attitudes, not the law.