Just days before Princess Diana’s violent death, I listened to
Brookside star Dean Sullivan, who plays the roguish Jimmy Corkhill, talk
eloquently about his struggle to keep his private life off limits. Like
all soap stars these days, he is forced to give press interviews:
contracts stipulate that actors do a ’reasonable’ amount of publicity.
Sullivan, who tries to link these interviews solely to the storylines he
is depicting, spoke with horror about being doorstepped, of his absolute
conviction that even TV stars should be free to conduct their domestic
lives in private: ’You do regard your home as your haven.’
The tabloid approach until this week has been that soap stars are fair
game, as are a galaxy of public figures: sportsmen, weathermen and
But, in the aftermath of Diana’s death, it is precisely this sloppy,
catch-all justification for intrusion which demands re-examination.
The Press Complaints Commissionhas rushed to set up an inquiry into the
use of paparazzi photographs, and the amoral behaviour of all engaged in
the trade. But the public mood, the furious denunciation of press
harassment by Earl Spencer and the sense of guilt that unrestrained
reporting may have played a part in her death requires something
Once the funeral is out of the way, there should be an industry-wide
frank examination of where the media should decently draw the line
between the justifiable reporting of a person’s actions and their right
to be left alone. The tabloids must join in and it mustn’t be a
Those who shrug and say ’what’s the point, it will make no impact in a
global marketplace’, deserve contempt. You have to start somewhere. It
might even allow some public good to flow from premature death.
One factor is that, under the latest pressure, rifts are opening up
between tabloids and broadsheets. The Press Complaints Commission has
for a decade managed to hold together a precarious alliance between the
two wings in policing an industry-wide code. This semi-success played a
key part in persuading the Government to abandon both statutory privacy
laws (proposed by the Calcutt report) and a new law allowing individuals
to sue for invasion of private family and health matters.
But in a lecture earlier this year, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger gave
notice that he was no longer prepared to stand by and defend the
indefensible - a stance reinforced this week - while the judiciary is
open in its desire to create a de facto law of privacy through
individual cases and the application of the European Convention on Human
Rights. It’s too trite to say the press is drinking in the Last Chance
Saloon, that a privacy law is on the way.
But there is a real, and I’m inclined to think healthy, sense of change
in the air.