Parliament has investigated the commission and its predecessor, the Press Council, on a number of occasions, and issued a stack of reports on the failures to protect privacy through self-regulation. It has also threatened repeatedly to clamp down on privacy violations. After Princess Diana’s death in 1997—which many blame on the paparazzi that chased her car in the moments before it crashed in Paris—the British public’s mood toward the tabloids soured further, and the debate over privacy and the press intensified. To stave off regulation, editors backed a tough new code of conduct that banned harassment and set strict limits for reporting on private lives. But ten years later, nothing much has changed. In fact, with more than a dozen national tabloids competing for a shrinking pool of readers, the competition for scoops is fiercer than ever.
Many journalists and legal experts have come to believe that unless the commission reins in privacy violations, it’s just a matter of time before Parliament or the courts do it for them. In fact, a series of recent rulings on tabloid stories and tell-all books is already forming the basis of a de facto privacy law.
One of the most famous cases involves Prince Charles. Since late 2005, he has been fighting to block the Mail on Sunday from publishing his personal journals, copies of which he distributed to more than twenty people. One of them was written during his official trip to China for the 1997 Hong Kong handover celebration, where Britain’s future king watched his nation surrender one of the last shreds of its fraying empire. In it, he refers to China’s leaders as “appalling old waxworks” and bemoans “the gradual undermining of Hong Kong’s greatest strength—the rule of law.” The Mail on Sunday has argued that the information has public-interest value because it shows the political leanings of a future head of state. But so far, the courts have sided overwhelmingly with Prince Charles, saying he holds the copyright on the diaries and has the right to keep them confidential.
Meanwhile, in May, England’s highest court ordered Hello! magazine to pay more than $2 million in fines for hiring a photographer to pose as a waiter and snap photos of Michael Douglas and Katherine Zeta-Jones exchanging marital vows back in 2000 because another magazine has paid for exclusive rights.
Most of the recent rulings on privacy and the press involve petty tabloid gossip, but their implications may reach much further. A new legal landscape appears to be taking shape, one in which the courts can censor information about the private lives of public figures, even when the material is in the public interest or is already in the public realm. “Britain has long been the libel capital of the world. Now it’s in danger of becoming the privacy capital,” says Jeremy Dear of the National Union of Journalists. “In other words, a place where the rich, the famous, and the powerful can hide behind the law and are no longer accountable to the people.”