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British Press Dips Its Toes in Ethical Waters--for Now

Media: Are the tabloids really sincere in mending their ways or just ducking the public salvos?

September 29, 1997|ROY GREENSLADE | Roy Greenslade is media commentator for the Guardian

LONDON — It took the death of a princess and the anger of an earl to engender catharsis in Britain's press. In the wake of the Princess Diana tragedy, a fierce public debate about the role of newspapers has erupted. The public attacked press photographers going about their normal work during the days leading up to Diana's funeral. Politicians demanded a law to protect people's privacy. Two newspaper proprietors and their editors launched vitriolic attacks on each other. Now editors are drawing up a new code of practice. Veteran journalists have never witnessed anything quite like this before.

When Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, accused editors of having blood on their hands, he knew he was being provocative. He also must have realized his funeral oration, in which he spoke of papers haunting Diana, would cause ripples. In fact, he produced waves. He widened the growing split between Britain's two newspaper cultures--the serious, high-minded broadsheet press and the mass-selling tabloids that peddle infotainment and celebrity trivia. It was the tabloids that followed Diana's every move, publishing pictures taken by paparazzi photographers using long lenses and goading her every time she appeared in public.

Straddling this press divide is the Daily Mail, a tabloid with broadsheet pretensions. It has used paparazzi pictures, has been accused of intrusive behavior and often trades on its revelations about the royal family. But it is, by common consent, not nearly as sleazy as the larger-selling tabloids that often make the National Enquirer look staid. So there was little surprise when, in response to public disquiet, the Mail's owner, an old-fashioned press baron reveling in the title, Lord Rothermere, announced that his papers would no longer use paparazzi pictures. Unwisely, Rothermere added that if other owners didn't follow his lead, he might well have to reconsider his ban.

Retribution was swift. Charles Moore, editor of the Daily Telegraph, a prestigious broadsheet that has long taken issue with both the conduct and content of tabloids, immediately attacked Rothermere and his editor in chief, Sir David English. In an intemperate series of leading articles, he accused them of gross hypocrisy, pretending to clean up their act while preparing to continue with their dirty work. English, chairman of a committee that is responsible for the editors' code of practice, was singled out for special ferocity. Moore likened English's role to that of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams chairing a committee verifying the IRA cease-fire. The Telegraph's owner, Canada's Conrad Black, chose another metaphor. He said it was like appointing Al Capone to investigate organized crime in 1920s Chicago.

This entertaining dog-eat-dog spectacle ended with a behind-closed-doors agreement to disagree and a halt to hostilities. Moore and English then joined other editors in trying to revise the code that is supposed to govern editorial behavior. The early proposals could have far-reaching effects on what appears in tabloid papers. Almost all paparazzi pictures will be banned; editors will be required to verify the source of all material they publish; children up to the age of 16 will be protected; and editors must respect people's privacy. Editors also will be expected not to publish stories not deemed to be in the public interest. Editors even will be pressured to find ways of ending media scrums, those tasteless occasions when an army of photographers descend on a news event.

Although it is early and the exact wording of a new code has yet to be agreed upon, this is a laudable attempt to change the culture of the tabloids. The code is administered by a body called the Press Complaints Commission, set up and funded by newspaper owners at government request to ensure that papers do not trample on people's rights. Its only sanction is to order a paper to publish a condemnatory judgment if a complaint is upheld. Many politicians believe it needs teeth, and a growing number of broadsheet editors agree. They are sure to be watching how a revised code works in the future, ready to pounce if tabloids step out of line.

As a former tabloid editor myself, knowing the strain of maximizing sales at all costs, it is astonishing to witness the enthusiasm of editors for these restrictions. A cynic might suggest that they have welcomed them just to placate angry readers and politicians in the short term. Once the heat is off in months to come, they will treat the code as they did before, obeying its letter but ignoring its spirit. Cynics in journalism have a habit of being right.

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