BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Ah, the British monarchy. The latest Royals scandal swirls around Prince Charles, rumored to have been involved in a sexual incident with a male aide. Britain's strict libel laws have barred coverage of the rumor, but the prince has issued a denial anyway. Meanwhile charges of censorship are being levied by the European press because their British distributors are preventing the delivery of such papers as France's Le Monde and Le Figaro, Italy's La Stampa and Spain's El Pais. Also court action is under way, all of which has left the British news consumer in a more or less constant state of titillation this week over -- well, they don't know exactly what. David Hooper is a solicitor specializing in libel law, and he joins me now. Welcome back to the show.
DAVID HOOPER: Thanks very much indeed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what exactly is preventing the British press from reporting the details?
DAVID HOOPER: Well this is prior restraint, and you would be in contempt of court, and your newspaper could be fined. You could even be sent to prison if you deliberately flouted an order of a court. They're saying you must not repeat the substance of these allegations, and everyone's mind is rather boggling as to what on earth allegedly went on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Meanwhile the European papers have been reporting freely on the scandal, and they've had their distribution in England cut off, at least for a day. Seven thousand copies of Le Monde were said to be pulped. Was there a court order against them, or were the distributors in England simply afraid of the possibility of being prosecuted?
DAVID HOOPER: I think they'd have been afraid of the possibility, and I think they feel that they need to act responsibly, but there's a long history of this in the UK, going back to 1936 when our then Prince of Wales was having an affair with the American Mrs. Simpson, and you were allowed to read about that in Europe, but you certainly weren't allowed even a whisper of it in the English press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And so Le Monde is crying censorship, and an Italian publisher's group said the ban was undemocratic. Those big issues aside, it's awfully difficult to put this particular toothpaste back in the tube, isn't it? I mean the details are widely available on the internet.
DAVID HOOPER: I think that's right, but people do distinguish between what appears in the equivalent of the New York Times and the more hairbrained stuff that appears on the internet. I mean there may well have been a justification for the injunction in the first place, because it's private, and it may have very well not be true. I mean the, the evidence seems to suggest it is not true. But you have to look at it as the situation changes, and eventually I think the English courts will probably ha-- have to lift the injunction or modify it, because they will say it has become ridiculous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are injunctions lifted when they become ridiculous?
DAVID HOOPER:That's what happened in a case that I was involved in concerning the former MI-5 agent Peter Wright who gave descriptions which were then considered highly secret of alleged misconduct by our secret service MI-5. You could buy the book at JFK, and people were taking suitcase-fuls of them back to the UK. And when the judges said that millions of Americans know; everyone on the continent knows; millions of British know, because they'd bought the books at JFK; everyone in Ireland knows -- they said it's becoming ridiculous even though it may have been justified in the first place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:With the internet and the ease of acquiring information from anywhere at any time around the world, do you think that Britons will begin to question some of these arcane press freedom laws?
DAVID HOOPER: I think inevitably they will, but some degree of privacy has got to be protected. We may all argue as to where the dividing line is. The problem is if you take no action at all, then people feel that they can publish anything they like about you, and the fact that you can't be a hundred percent effective may not necessarily be an argument for not acting against the 80 percent where you can be effective. And of course, the newspapers in England slightly want it both ways in that they are not above taunting people, saying "Well if it was untrue, why didn't you sue?" So in a sense they sometimes do make a rod for their own bag.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Thank you very much.
DAVID HOOPER: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Hooper is a solicitor specializing in libel law.