BROOKE GLADSTONE: The popular end of Britain's newspaper market is also the sharp end, and the pressure is always on to bring readers in with the hottest celebrity gossip. But spare a thought for the UK's tabloid journalists who operate in an environment that is heavily controlled compared to here in the U.S., and soon British newspapers will be subject to even more regulation. Gareth Mitchell has been investigating this story from London.
GARETH MITCHELL: Naomi Campbell is one of Britain's biggest super stars. On the way up, she's had a health marriage with the tabloid newspapers. They've loved her looks and her glamorous lifestyle, and she's loved all the publicity. Now that relationship has hit rocky times. Journalist and writer Chris Horrie is an expert on Britain's tabloids, and he's been following the Naomi story.
CHRIS HORRIE: Naomi Campbell was seen going to a drug rehabilitation clinic in London, and the Daily Mirror simply wrote about it. They took pictures of her going into the clinic. There's nothing libelous about that, because--it's true! Her objection is that it's an invasion of her privacy which is an entirely different matter.
GARETH MITCHELL: And it's a matter that's prompted Naomi to take the issue to Britain's high court. Her legal action is possible thanks to European privacy laws that Britain has recently adopted. She's being represented in the case by lawyers Schilling & Lom Partners. Simon Smith is managing partner at the firm.
SIMON SMITH: The new privacy law is based upon Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Therefore, from the second of October 2000, media lawyers had a new weapon. They could go to court and say that a particular story should be stopped, restrained from publication on the grounds that it would be an infringement of their client's privacy.
GARETH MITCHELL: At the Daily Mirror's sister title, the Sunday People, editor Neil Wallace is outraged by the Naomi Campbell case. He says her actions stink of hypocrisy.
NEIL WALLACE: What you have here is this incredible double standards. Naomi Campbell has posed naked in books. She poses with no clothes on along the catwalks around the world. She will do anything to get her name in the paper. And yet suddenly -- she wants to turn the tap off.
GARETH MITCHELL: But, says media lawyer Simon Smith, the same human rights legislation that protects individuals' privacy also has provisions that favor the newspapers.
SIMON SMITH: On the flip side, the journalists would point out that the convention also has Article 10 which entitles anyone to freedom of expression, and so it's a balancing exercise on each occasion between the two directly competing freedoms or rights.
GARETH MITCHELL: The trouble is that it'll be up to judges to perform this legal balancing act on a case by case basis behind closed doors, well away from Parliament and elected politicians. Hardly a democratic process; all bad news for editor Neil Wallace back at the Sunday People. He's sick of constantly struggling against what he sees as increasingly draconian restrictions against the media.
NEIL WALLACE: They are slowly, steadily bringing choking censorship and privacy laws, and the outrageous thing is -- it isn't to protect Joe Public -- it's to protect the rich and famous.
SIMON SMITH: The journalist is complaining because his freedom of expression is being fettered or restrained by these new laws.
GARETH MITCHELL: Media lawyer Simon Smith.
SIMON SMITH: And that journalist would be the first to reach for the privacy rights. I think we all have to look after the individual who can be exploited and targeted by a much bigger force, and I think the court's the best place to judge when that point arises and not the editor of a newspaper who openly flouts the law.
GARETH MITCHELL: And tabloid expert Chris Horrie says it's not just legislative changes that are altering the tabloid landscape.
CHRIS HORRIE: The British tabloids are, are, are incredibly blanded out compared with what they, they used to be. They used to be absolutely red in tooth and claw. They used to be absolutely out of control - day in, day out. You know wildly exaggerated stories, unbelievable political bias -- so biased it was actually funny -- and really quite savage and nasty, intrusive reporting into people's lives. They've had to stop all that -- partly, probably, their audience has changed. More people now are - go to university in this country; we're becoming all middle class country - all - you know - so all this kind of very downmarket aggressive stuff no longer really works.
GARETH MITCHELL: Meanwhile, about a third of the British population regularly picks up a tabloid --nearly twice as many as read the so-called "quality press." The high court is due to deliver its verdict in the Naomi Campbell vs. the Daily Mirror case at the end of the month. But even if Naomi wins, it'll be a long time before celebrities have nothing to fear from the long lens and the scoop-hungry tabloid news hound. For On the Media, this is Gareth Mitchell in London.