II British press freedom and privacy
III Measures to protect privacy against press intrusion
“The individual has the right of expressing himself as long as he does not harm other individuals.” (John Stuart Mill, English philosopher, 1806-1873)
Without doubt, freedom of the press is an important cornerstone of democratic societies. It is widely considered that the more press freedom there exists in a country the more democratic, developed, etc. this country is. Every year, the international organization “Reporters Without Borders” provide a record of the current situation of press freedom all over the world - awarding 1st place the country which has most of it. After the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, however, the freedom of the press is looked at more critically than ever before. Diana’s complaints to the Press Complaints Commission as well as an obtained injunction against a press photographer both display her urging need for more privacy in the years before her death. She made several statements claiming more comfortability in her and her children’s private life. But not until her tragic death in 1997, new measures in order to protect the privacy of individuals were seriously taken into consideration.
In this essay, these attempts to restrict the freedom of press are investigated. First of all, a rough definition of crucial terms like privacy and press freedom will be given. Secondly, the history of the British press and its freedom will be outlined in chapter II. In chapter III, important measures taken after 1997 will be explained. Taking into account several articles about privacy law, the current situation will be sketched as well. Finally, my own opinion and ideas will be exposed in the conclusion.
II British press freedom and privacy
Privacy is a concept which cannot be satisfactorily defined. Still, there is an official definition made up in 1995 by the UK Government:
“Every individual has a right to privacy comprising:
(a) a right to be free from harassment and molestation; and
(b) a right to privacy of personal information, communications,
and documents.” (UK Law Online)
In contrast to this, the definition of privacy in Wikipedia is much more subject-related, i. e. it states that privacy is an ability (more active) instead of being a right (more passive):
“Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to keep their lives and personal affairs out of public view, or to control the flow of information about themselves.” (Wikipedia)
Press freedom is an element of the freedom of expression which is contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN. As an expert in this area, Professor Robert L. Stevenson has defined the term of press freedom as follows:
“Freedom of the press is the right to speak, broadcast, or publish without prior restraint by or permission of the government, but with limited legal accountability after publication for violations of law. It may also encompass legal guarantees of (i) reasonable access to information about government, business, and people; (ii) a right of reply or correction; (iii) a limited right of access to the media; and (iv) some special protections for journalists.” (Legislative Council, Hongkong)
Freedom of expression was one of many democratic achievements influenced by the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. In England, the milestone of press freedom was the abolition of censorship laws in 1695. However, restrictions in terms of seditious libel laws continued up to the 19th century. It was not until 1843 that truth became a legitimate defence in seditious libel suits by Lord Campbell’s Libel Act. In the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, a section of the press became politically independent because of the increase of advertisement. In 1834, The Times declared that it would no longer receive “early information from government offices” (Curran 1997: 10) because of the independence of the newspaper. Nevertheless, the newspapers were often supported by party loyalists even up to the twentieth century. As Curran and Seaton state, they “long remained an extension of the party system” (ibid.). Along with the commercial newspapers there also existed a market for a radical press in the 19th century. This sort of papers had neither a meaningful rise of advertisement nor were they supported financially by any political group. Empowered by the then valid seditious libel law, governments often sued these newspapers and even levied several taxes concerning the press – which was a clear sign of insufficient press freedom at that time. Around 1900, the radical press was almost gone or incorporated into mainstream journalism. Most of the newspapers that arosed at that time were rightwing ones. According to Raymond Snoddy, this fact “stems from the personal preferences of powerful newspaper proprietors, from the fact that national newspapers are large industrial enterprises and those who run them tend to identify with the interests of business.” (Snoddy 1993: 26) The first papers financed by the working class came into existence in 1912. Those were exceptions, however, since in the early twentieth century, the newspapers were mostly controlled by their proprietors, the so-called press barons. They possessed chains of newspapers and journals comparable to vast empires. Allegedly, they ruled the newspapers in order to achieve and maintain political and financial power and so, complete freedom of press was not possible.