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'Dirty Pictures': European Media Codes Protect Privacy -- But Only To An Extent

By Kathleen Knox in Prague
The editor of a prominent newspaper is videotaped in a series of compromising positions with a woman who is not his wife. Is a rival justified in publishing the grainy photos?

Gayane Mukoyan thought so. The editor of the Armenian daily "Or" earlier this month printed several still shots of Aram Abrahamian apparently having sex with an unknown woman. The photos ran under the headline "Open your eyes" -- a jab at the apparent hypocrisy of one of the government's most outspoken critics being discovered "in flagrante delicto."

But the jab appears to have backfired. Abrahamian shrugged off the incident as a crude attempt to discredit his paper, the respected "Aravot" daily. Mukoyan was roundly condemned and expelled from Armenia's National Press Club for "violating the norms of journalistic ethics."

Codes of journalistic practice in the West generally frown on publishing material that excessively and unjustifiably intrudes on an individual's privacy. The key in determining how far a journalist can go lies in striking a delicate balance between two often opposing principles.

Bob Franklin, a journalism professor at Britain's Sheffield University, explains: "What any legislation or any code or any system of regulation must do is balance two very precious things. The first is an individual's right to privacy, a proper right to privacy, whether they are a celebrity or an ordinary member of the public like myself. But the second thing they must do is secure freedom of the press so it can have proper scope for investigation or reporting what it takes to be matters of proper public interest."

In Britain, it falls to a so-called press complaints commission to try to set this balance. The commission's guidelines were beefed up following the death in 1997 of Diana, princess of Wales -- "the most hunted person of the modern age," in the words of her brother, Charles Spencer. The commission's code of practice says everyone's private and family life must be respected. Journalists, for example, may not use telephoto-lens photography to take invasive pictures of people in private places -- meaning any property, public or private, where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

There is, however, a big "but" to the privacy code. Exceptions are allowed if the material is deemed to be in the public interest. Ideally, this should mean "what is for the greater benefit of the public." But for the British tabloid press, it has increasingly come to mean what is literally of interest to the public -- in other words, celebrities and their sexual peccadilloes.

And so the newspapers do publish racy photos -- though nothing, so far, that reveals as much as the pictures published in Armenia. Among the most scandalous of the British tabloid photos were the "pregnant Diana" shots -- showing the princess, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, on the beach wearing only a bikini.

But apart from the press complaints commission's privacy recommendations, Britain has no privacy law as such. Victims have been forced to use their imagination to punish the media for a perceived invasion of privacy.

Two recently-wed celebrities, for example, were furious when a British newspaper printed nude honeymoon photos taken on the sly. The couple is now suing under the British Human Rights Act, recently incorporated into British law, which upholds the right to a private life.

Similarly, supermodel Naomi Campbell sued "The Mirror" tabloid under a medical confidentiality law after it ran photos of her leaving a drug rehabilitation clinic. She won, but later lost on appeal -- the judge ruled that, since she had denied ever being a drug addict, the pictures were in the public interest because they exposed her lies.

"The [privacy issue] is a minefield, both philosophically and legally. Where someone's privacy ends and the public interest claim begins is very difficult [to define],” said Franklin. “If, for example, I decide to be unfaithful to my wife and have an affair, that is arguably my private business. If I'm the prime minister, if I'm the member of a party which is publicly supporting family values, then my misdemeanor has a more public interest aspect."

In the Armenian case, Abrahamian m-a-y have criticized corruption among government ranks, but he did n-o-t preach about family values.

Claude-Jean Bertrand is a professor emeritus at the University of Paris and the author of several books on media accountability. Bertrand, who's also an observer at the European Alliance of Independent Press Councils, says codes on media conduct are
remarkably similar throughout Europe.

He says there was no reasonable justification for publishing the Abrahamian pictures. But he says there could be a public interest argument for publishing similarly explicit pictures in certain cases. As an example, Bertrand cites the "Profumo affair" of the 1960s -- the sensational revelation that Britain's War Minister, John Profumo, had been having relations with a prostitute who at the same time was seeing the Soviet naval attaché:

Britain's popular press, with its prurient interest in the private lives of public figures, boasts a mass readership. In other countries in Europe, the tabloid press is more limited, so there's less press exposure -- pardon the pun -- of public figures in embarrassing situations. Still, they do crop up -- often, as in the Armenian example, as the result of feuding political interests.

In Greece, the wife of former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou became tabloid fodder in the early 1990s, when topless pictures of her -- including one faked photo of her with another woman -- made front-page news.

Russia provides two other notable recent examples -- in 1997, Russian newspapers printed blurred pictures that purported to show then Justice Minister Valentin Kovalyov romping naked with several women in a sauna. Two years later, the nation's television viewers were treated to a grainy video appearing to catch then Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov in bed with two prostitutes.

But the similarity to the Armenian case ends there. Unlike Abrahamian, both Kovalyov and Skuratov subsequently lost their jobs.