Tom McNally, a Liberal Democrat minister in the Ministry of Justice, suggested last week that the Coalition Government might introduce a new privacy law rather than allow judges to develop one according to their interpretation of Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention. Lord McNally told The Daily Telegraph: "If we are going to have a privacy law, it should be openly debated and freely decided by Parliament."
Five years ago, I would have been horrified by the prospect of Parliament passing a privacy law because I would have assumed it would operate against the interests of a free press. Politicians sometimes have much to hide, not only in respect of their private lives but also their financial dealings. One can easily imagine a privacy law making it difficult, if not impossible, for The Daily Telegraph to have published comprehensive details of MPs' expenses scams. Asking politicians to frame such a law is a bit like putting well-known poachers in charge of legislation for gamekeepers.
Times, however, have changed. A series of rulings, many delivered by Mr Justice Eady, have so developed judge-made privacy law that judgments are being handed down all the time preventing newspapers from publishing true stories about public figures. Twice in the past week, two England footballers have won injunctions prohibiting the media from reporting revelations about their private lives. The golfer Colin Montgomerie has also recently used an injunction to prevent the publication of a story about his private life.
Some people are unruffled by such developments. Maybe they think the private lives of public figures should be sacrosanct. Possibly they believe that newspapers' interest in such stories is prurient and driven solely by commercial interests. No doubt there is some validity in these arguments, but they ignore the danger of entrusting judges with more and more power to determine what can, and cannot, be published. Sexual shenanigans and financial misbehaviour sometimes go hand in hand.
Judges are not usually the best guardians of a free press, as their recent use of super-injunctions testifies. These draconian devices ban the media even from reporting that an injunction has been sought and issued. They have been granted not just in straightforward privacy cases but also where there are no privacy issues, as when a super-injunction was obtained by the oil trading firm Trafigura last September gagging The Guardian. Lord McNally was right to speak of "the super-injunction [as] something that has grown up by stealth, rather than by considered desire of Parliament".
Those who believe in a free press should be wary of a judiciary increasingly limiting its scope. There is little prospect of this process stopping. Do Lord McNally and his colleagues have the interests of a free press at heart, or are they looking for a pretext to apply new restrictions where previous governments have stayed their hand? In the now unavoidable public debate ahead, we will discover the answer to that question.
Go-slows in journalism
What would I feel if I worked on the Daily Mirror? Journalists on the paper and at Trinity Mirror's other two national titles are planning a series of two-hour strikes during which they will presumably decamp to the pub. I could not rationally bring myself to oppose the redundancies taking place since every national newspaper has had to cut costs, and the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and People have lost a lot of circulation in recent years. But I could easily work up an enormous contempt for Trinity Mirror's senior executives. In what is admittedly a difficult daily and Sunday market, they are bereft of any strategic ideas, let alone vision.
What would particularly irritate me is that, while chopping jobs left, right and centre, senior executives are paying themselves ever greater amounts of money. Last year, Trinity Mirror's chief executive, Sly Bailey, received £1.68m – a 66 per cent increase over the previous year.
Other executive directors also got significant rises, though the company, which also owns many regional titles, reported a 41 per cent fall in pre-tax profits to £72.7m. Some £68m of savings were delivered from closing 30 regional titles and other redundancies. Trinity's management is being rewarded for slashing costs in an inexorably declining business.
Of course I would be incandescent were I unfortunate enough to work for Sly Bailey. But what is the point of a token go-slow? All that remains for Daily Mirror journalists is the pride of producing the best possible paper in circumstances that aren't going to get any better.
Beauty and the beastly
Everyone knows that the lofty aspirations which lay behind the launch of Channel 4 in 1982 have been long since discarded. Almost no one expects it to honour its public service remit to produce "a broad range of high quality and diverse programming". Though it does still produce some serious programmes, C4 has become an engine of increasingly trashy reality television.
Nonetheless, its latest idea to succeed Big Brother, the 11th and final series of which ends this week, is shocking. Beauty And The Beast will put two people, one strikingly attractive, the other with severe physical deformities, in the same house, which will be full of wall-to-wall mirrors. Week after week, viewers will watch how each pair gets on – or doesn't.
Doubtless there will be some who will defend such voyeurism on the grounds that it is "gritty" and "honest". Channel 4 itself has the cheek to claim that Beauty And The Beast "will be key to our public service offering next year", thereby revealing how very far it has lost the plot. With Richard Desmond having recently taken over its rival Five, what hope is there?