Susan Aslin on the arguments for regulating the media

Susan Aslin

There is no law of privacy in this country analogous to that in France which entitles an individual to prevent publication of information solely on the grounds that the information is private. On this basis, the Duchess of York was able to restrain publication of pictures of her in a bikini with her financial adviser, John Bryan.

The operation of the law in France means that little, if anything, is published by the French media concerning politicians' private lives. Yet in the UK we are regaled with stories of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles and photos of Princess Diana exercising in a gym, taken without her consent.

The second Calcutt report in January 1993 reported that press self-regulation was not working and recommended that the statutory protection of an individual's privacy should be considered.

In July 1993, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Scottish office put out a consultation paper on infringement of privacy and a Bill has been promised or threatened by the Government for some time.

I question whether all this sound and fury is really justified. Television is extremely tightly regulated in this country. The Broadcasting Act 1990 introduced a new statutory body, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, with a specific remit to considering and adjudicating upon complaints of unwarranted infringement of privacy, in or connection with the obtaining of material included in television programmes. The ITC Programme Code, to which broadcasters must adhere, has stringent requirements on the gathering of material and in particularly in relation to secret filming and recording. To all intents and purposes, there is already a law of privacy which binds television broadcasters.

So far as the press is concerned, the burgeoning law of confidence appears to cover many of the areas which cause concern. In the case of Francome v Mirror Group Newspapers in 1984, an unknown individual recorded a tape of a conversation between a national hunt jockey and his wife and the tape was passed to the Mirror Group Newspapers.

Despite a plea of public interest in defence by the newspaper, this publication was restrained on the grounds of breach of confidence. It is precisely this precept that is being used once again against the Daily Mirror by the Princess of Wales in respect of publication of photographs taken of her at a gym without her knowledge. This case is likely to come to trial early next year.

If the Princess of Wales is successful it would appear to confirm that plaintiffs who are willing to identify themselves as the subject of bugging, a snatch photograph or other revelation of their private life, may use the law of confidence to restrain publication or broadcast as long as that information is not already in the public domain. It would seem superfluous under those circumstances to introduce further legislation.

Susan Aslan is a partner in D J Freeman's media group.