Interview: Dorothy Byrne

Dorothy Byrne, commissioning editor, Channel 4, on free speech and privacy.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

Dorothy Byrne’s comments form part of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.

I am one of the few people to have invaded the privacy of the tabloid press. Several years ago, when the Mirror Group newspapers printed photographs of Princess Diana in her gym, the programme that I worked on then – ITV’s The Big Story – decided that we would give those newspaper executives a taste of their own medicine to see how they like having their privacy invaded. So we hired 60ft cranes and sent them to their houses and peered through their windows. And we hired teams of photographers to pursue them round the streets of London.

Their reaction was interesting. One of them called the police with a view to us being arrested, which the police declined to do. One of them telephoned me and said that I had no legal right to invade the privacy of his boss, so we recorded that call and broadcast it.

One of our cameras was smashed and, most unpleasantly of all, several of the photographers were threatened that they would never work again. We had to have some deeply unpleasant conversations about that. This all goes to show, not very surprisingly perhaps, that even the greatest proponents of the freedom of the press actually believe that there is a right to privacy because they want their own privacy to be protected.

In broadcasting, things are very different to newspapers. We are controlled by tight codes and by and large we don’t quarrel with those codes. We are to respect people’s right to privacy. Certainly at Channel 4 we don’t see the Human Rights Act as, if it is properly interpreted, being a particular problem for us, as long as there is a proper balance between the individual’s right to privacy and freedom of expression. I know that some BBC executives have called for a new law and we see absolutely no reason to have a new law and would not support that.

I think it might help if I briefly describe how we go about things because it is so very different. Our rule is that for secret filming to be justified, which would be the chief way in which most people would perceive us as invading people’s privacy, we have to have prior evidence of wrongdoing.

I then have to apply in writing to the programme controller at Channel 4 to do that secret filming and he can and does reject that request at times. I can’t use secret filming as a fishing expedition. I couldn’t, for example, film the wedding of Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas, because there was no evidence that their marriage was bogus or bigamous as far as I’m aware and therefore they weren’t up to no good.

We would always be particularly careful about some elements of people’s privacy, obviously to do with their children, to do with their homes or to do with religious places of worship, for example. We are balancing rights all the time. For example, I just secretly filmed in a mosque which is quite a controversial thing to do, but we didn’t secretly film any worship, we only secretly filmed the buying and selling of stolen passports.

It may seem strange to people that we don’t find our system greatly hampers our ability as investigative journalists. Sometimes it does and sometimes it’s irritating, but I think that Channel 4 has a fine tradition of investigative journalism and has not been held back by privacy in particular.

The one exception that I would say to that, and the thing that really does worry us, is the increasing use of confidentiality clauses in people’s contracts, often with very draconian clauses attached, which are undoubtedly being used by major companies and organisations to hush up matters which should be in the public domain. Some journalists feel that privacy laws are having ‘a chilling effect’ on their work, but it hasn’t affected me yet.

Next week I might have a completely different view. The thing that effects me most is confidentiality clauses but I don’t see anybody beating those or expressing great concern about those and those are constant, the absolute bane of my life.

Dorothy Byrne is commissioning editor news, business and current affairs, Channel 4.

This is an extract of a speech given at the debate ‘Private Lives, Public People’ at the London School of Economics on 7 March 2001. It was co-organised by the LIRE media group, the Society of Editors, the Media Society and the LSE Media group.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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