This week the Leveson Inquiry starts for real. Until now it has been mere shadow boxing. In the space of a few days we will see three of the most vocal critics of the tabloid press – Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Max Mosley – in full flow. It is certain they will widen their criticisms from the News of the World and phone hacking to include all tabloid newspapers.
Nobody seriously defends phone hacking or illegal surveillance. These things went on at the News of the World, but that paper has been closed. They probably took place at other newspapers, but I doubt they still do. The argument this week will not really be about disreputable methods which newspapers have employed in the past. It will concern whether they have a right in future to publish stories about the private lives of celebrities.
These three gentlemen see themselves as the victims of the tabloids. Mr Grant's soliciting of a prostitute in 1995 gave them a field day, and in 2004 they reported that he was dating Jemima Khan while she was still married to Imran Khan. Steve Coogan's alleged drug use and sex life have featured in the tabloids. Mr Mosley's participation in two extremely high-spirited orgies was also reported by the News of the World and subsequently the rest of the press.
None of these men had proclaimed their virtue, and they were therefore not guilty of hypocrisy. Many will say that what they get up to in their private lives is entirely their own business, so long as it is legal. Mr Coogan has put it thus: "What happens in my private life is none of your f****ing business. I'm an entertainer. I don't go round saying I'm a paragon of virtue, so that is clearly not in the public interest."
Is he right? The answer to that question is by far the most important issue before the Leveson Inquiry. Last week my esteemed colleague Mary Ann Sieghart approvingly quoted Hugh Grant's metaphor of a pint of milk. According to the actor, figuratively speaking, he sells the tabloids a pint of milk by way of publicity. But then, when the contract is complete, the tabloids come back and break into his home and raid his fridge for more milk.
Breaking and entering is illegal, and Mr Grant is right to complain about that. But I don't think he is right to expect the tabloids to go on buying milk only when he wants to sell it, and at the price which he determines. What he and others want, it seems to me, is publicity on their own terms. If he had shunned the media spotlight, I would entirely respect his position. As it is, he has deliberately purveyed a version of himself which suits him, and is bound to be partial. He is on weak ground if he objects when newspapers publish true information not included in his version, or diametrically opposed to it.
Of course he has rights of privacy, and the discussion should be about where the line is drawn. But I don't think we can accept the proposition which will be made by Messrs Grant, Coogan and Mosley that the private lives of celebrities and public figures should automatically be completely off-limits. No one has put the argument better than the late Auberon Waugh, writing in the New Statesman in the 1970s in defence of the Daily Mail gossip columnist Nigel Dempster.
"It is one of the oldest pastimes of the poor and unprivileged," wrote Waugh, "to gossip about the rich and powerful ... [and] I would have thought it a small price to pay for being rich, or beautiful, or exceptionally talented, or even famous. If, as a famous person, you are in the habit of doing things which would make you ashamed if they were more widely known, then you have a clear choice between changing your habits, changing your attitude to them or retreating from the public stage. The other course of action is to cross your fingers and hope Nigel Dempster never finds out, but I do not think it reasonable to expect the entire structure of a free press to be dismantled in order to accommodate your foibles."
If only Lord Justice Leveson would cut that quotation out, and stick it above his desk!
The double standards of the tabloid press
Naturally I accept that titans of the newspaper industry should be regarded as public figures. For months newspapers have known that Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International and an ex-editor of The Sun, is expecting a baby by a surrogate mother. In terms of public awareness Mrs Brooks is at least on a par with a B-List celebrity.
And yet it took a call by the Daily Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle column and an item by Kevin Maguire in the New Statesman finally to bring the matter to light. On Friday The Sun duly published a brief story headlined "ex-chief Brooks in surrogate baby joy". The paper primly informed readers that "the surrogate mother wishes to remain anonymous".
If Mrs Brooks were an only moderately famous actress, the red-tops would try to buy the surrogate mother's story and run acres of copy about "Rebekah, the flame-haired temptress". An example, surely, of newspapers' double standards.
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