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Media Intrusion: Tough Laws Needed, Not Press Controls

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Phone hacking by a few tabloid newspapers as well as hordes of paparazzi regularly chasing celebs all over the world are part of the same personality cult obsession that has been continually building for decades.

The cause and cure for this is the same for the War on Drugs and illegal immigration. If there weren't a market for celebrity gossip and juicy news items, there wouldn't be phone hacking and paparazzi. The same holds true for drugs that people will pay to get or illegal aliens needed as cheap labor by welcoming industries. It's the market... stupid.

The U.K.'s celebrity obsession is enhanced to an unlimited degree by one of the world's most competitive press systems, one that is always on the lookout for good stories. I know this having for years sold celebrity interviews to the British tabloids. But while competition in the media goes hand-in-hand with a strong democracy, it also can create the ravenous feeding frenzy over celebrity and popular news items.

I'm not going to carp on about quality vs. tabloid journalism. But it's obvious in an age where phones can be hacked to capture personal information some actions have to be taken to protect privacy rights that even film stars have.

First, the markets for this stuff, mainly newspaper and now news sites, have to return to the old ways of good reporting, second, criminal penalties should remain tough, as they are, for convicted hackers and third, the phone industry that keeps inundating us with new more advanced and expensive models, should use its technology to develop hack-proof phones. The hacking in question only happened because cell phones are easy to hack.

Reading some of the Leveson Inquiry testimony its difficult not to feel shocked in the case of the Dowlers and even some sympathy for a famous actor such as Hugh Grant. Even though the lot of the film star as media big game goes with the territory, some of the malicious press antics go beyond the public schoolboy idea of "just a bit of fun."

In actress Sienna Miller's case, to listen in on her most private or intimate phone calls and then report what was heard is a double travesty and rights violation. But, there's a third, she thought it was her own family that betrayed her, something she claims cause rift between them.

Such activities go far beyond news and public interest. It's as if the market was trying to create the news and then report it as exclusives.

Miller also explained how she was chased up a street by a horde of paparazzi she was trying to elude. The amazing part of this incident is anything she may have done to protect herself would also become photos taken by the rabid snappers... creating news. In reality the worst thing a celeb can do is run. The best thing is to just stand there and allow photos to be taken.

For some snappers this may be enough. For others it won't. Good photos normally are action shots and catching someone such as Miller running away may mean big bucks for the lucky photog.

Paparazzi in many cities have had their wings clipped by laws that restrict their pursuit and stalking of celebs. Sadly, the next step may be press restrictions that will curtail the news media's quest for what it considers good stories.

In America, taped conversations, which used to be standard if you wanted to possibly entrap someone, are now illegal unless the target person allows you to tape him. I think this goes a bit too far if you want to entrap a criminal planning an illegal act -- this can result in court challenges on such evidence. The entrapment on videotape of Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, in selling favours with her ex is an example.

The Internet has expanded the celebrity market beyond anyone's imagination. There are countless celeb gossip sites spanning the cyber world -- some are produced by staff and some regurgitated old news. But, all are in the market for hot gossip.

And as long as there is a market for celebrity gossip anywhere, there will be people trying to supply that market. It is now up to governments, local and national, to control this activity. The idea of industry self control in the U.K. has been proven ineffective in such a hotly competitive market. Yet it would take undemocratic and anti capitalistic laws to stop news operations from being ready gossip markets.

The answer is not press controls, but stricter laws, both national and international, to police illegal activities from intrusive and threatening paparazzi to phone hackers working for the media.