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The Press and Privacy

GREAT BRITAIN and the United States are widely regarded as having the freest press in the world. But an untrammeled press can be a trampling press. In both countries, there are movements afoot to make the news media more readily accountable for violence to people's rights and reputations. In Britain, Parliament is mounting an attack on press licentiousness. The chief offenders are mass-circulation tabloid newspapers such as the Sun and the News of the World. In their tooth-and-claw circulation battles, the tabloids have raised both sleaze and outright fabrication to unprecedented heights, stampeding over the ordinary constraints of decency and privacy.

Bills have been introduced in the House of Commons to curb abuses. The government managed to deflect the most prominent bill. But, by appointing a commission to study the problem, the government has put the scandal sheets on notice that they had better ``clean up their act'' or possibly face restraints down the line.

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There is less manifest outrage toward the press in the US, but there are periodic signs of public sullenness that the media should not disregard. Distrust of the press was evident during the Grenada operation, the Westmoreland and Sharon libel trials a few years back, and the 1988 election, and it reappears each time a newshound exploits people's misery or grief for a good story.

Many Americans believe that the press, shielded by the First Amendment, views its immunity as carte blanche to invade privacy and sully reputations. They point to, among other things, the extreme difficulty of recovering libel damages in the US.

Several scholarly proposals to reform libel law have been put forth recently. The most comprehensive is a draft law offered by Northwestern University's Annenberg Washington Project. Starting from the premise that most libel plaintiffs are more concerned about setting the record straight than recovering money, the proposal would simplify the adjudication of truth and falsity in news reports; in return, the news media would be less vulnerable to costly litigation and monetary damages.

Such proposals have drawbacks, as many in the news media have been quick to point out. But they shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. As vital as press freedom is to political liberty, one cannot help thinking at times that a new balance should be struck between press license and individual rights.

Britons and Americans prize the freedom to be left alone by intrusive government. The price of such liberty, however, need not be indecent exposure to a prying press.

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