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Britain: Current Press Regulations Are Questioned

London, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this month, the chairman of Britain's Press Complaints Commission urged the editors of the country's sensational tabloid newspapers to be careful not to incite violence among soccer fans in their coverage of the coming World Cup in France.

Lord Wakeham warned the newspaper editors to tone down nationalistic language, and to make sure that they do not step over the line between, what he called "robust comment" and remarks stirring up racism. Newspapers must not "foster any form of xenophobia" that could encourage aggressive behavior among Britain's notoriously volatile soccer fans.

His admonition is an example of the watchdog duties of Britain's Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a regulatory body which is charged with upholding newspaper standards. Any member of the public can complain to the commission if he or she feels an article in the press has treated them unfairly, or if it is deemed to be racist, sexist or an incitement to violence. It is the job of the government-funded commission to look into complaints and then deliver a judgment based on the evidence.

An example of how the commission works came at the beginning of the month, when readers complained about the coverage in the Daily Star tabloid newspaper of the French refusal to sell more World Cup tickets to British fans. The paper had run an editorial in March under the headline, "Frogs need a good kicking." It added that the French had "grabbed the lion's share of tickets (in a move) typical of their slimy continental ways."

But the commission did not uphold seven separate complaints about the Star's article. It found that the wording of the article was technically not in breach of its code of conduct. Still, the PCC's chairman described the article as a "misjudgment" and said the spirit of the code of conduct should be observed.

During the Euro 96 soccer championships, the PCC received more than 300 complaints about newspaper coverage of the event. The tabloid Sun, owned by the Australian-born media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, exhorted England to "Blitz Fritz" and the Star commented "Here we go, bring on the Krauts."

But the PCC did not uphold any of the complaints, saying they were mostly to do with standards of taste rather than discrimination. This did not satisfy those who complain that the British tabloid newspapers frequently go too far in their comments and that the Press Complaints Commission needs to given stronger powers, including the ability to levy stiff fines on offending editors.

One of the main charges leveled at the tabloid press is that it intrudes pruriently into private lives, by running stories about messy divorces or other domestic upheavals that cannot be justified as being in the public interest.

Demands for a privacy law reached a peak after the death in a Paris road crash last year of Diana, divorced wife of the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles. Many Britons complained that a pursuing pack of photo-journalists may have contributed to the accident. Diana's death deepened a sense of unease among many about the press coverage of the royal family, whose private lives are frequently exposed by reporters seeking evidence of sexual impropriety or other scandals.

British editors have resisted the kind of privacy laws in place in other countries, saying they are the first step on a slippery slope toward press censorship. They have tried to deflect the pressure for legislation by saying the industry will regulate its own behavior. But editors often breach their own agreed code of conduct if the story is juicy enough.

One of the most oft-quoted examples of notorious lapses in standards came during Britain's 1982 Falklands War against Argentina. At the time, the Sun greeted the sinking of the Argentine ship, the Belgrano, with the loss of many lives, by running the front-page headline: "Gotcha!"

Many of the serious British newspapers, on the other hand, adhere rigorously to codes of conduct laid down by their editors. Most give readers the right to reply in their letters' columns and some (the Guardian is one) run a regular column correcting mistakes. Some newspapers have adopted the Swedish idea of an objective "ombudsman" to adjudicate complaints.

In addition, individuals who feel they have been treated unfairly by the newspapers or electronic media can resort to the legal system by taking out a libel or slander action against a proprietor, editor or reporter. Britain has some of the most punitive libel damages in the world --damages awarded by the courts can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and this is a powerful deterrent against running inaccurate stories. For example, a tabloid newspaper which erroneously reported that one of Britain's leading pop stars had paid for gay sex itself had to pay huge damages.

The guidelines governing what can be broadcast on radio and television are stricter than the rules for newspaper editors. Both television and radio -- and the advertising industry -- have watchdog bodies to whom aggrieved members of the public can turn if they have been treated unfairly.