MEDIA: Privacy law or no, change in press practice is inevitable

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.’

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

MPs.



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

wider.



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

seven-day wonder.



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.



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