John Walsh: It's not our job to be nice to you, Max

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The Independent Online

Formula One ex-supremo Max Mosley has been to the European Court of Human Rights to ask for a change in the law of privacy. He wants to make it illegal for newspapers to publish details of people's private lives without giving them prior warning. "It's really a very simple thing," he told Radio 4's Today, "that if a newspaper is going to write something about your private life, or something you might reasonably wish to keep reasonably private, they should tell you beforehand."

It sounds a very simple thing, doesn't it? (I love his repetition of the word "reasonably," when you think of the mortification level of being caught on video being thrashed by five hookers.) Perfectly reasonable request. Standard courtesy. Basic politeness. Except that it's not.

"News," said Lord Northcliffe, "is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress. All the rest is advertising." The ethics that ripple out from his lordship's saying are simple. Newspapers can reveal illegal behaviour by anyone, provided they can prove it in court. They should be able to reveal immoral (but legal) behaviour by figures in the public eye if their behaviour contradicts their public pronouncements or could affect their ability to do their job. Some things that people wish to suppress are private – debt, drink problems, embarrassing relatives, unwanted pregnancy – but if they're not illegal, and there's no reason, beyond pure nosiness or score-settling, for making them public, they shouldn't be published.

Most papers subscribe to these ethics, and have media lawyers to protect themselves from straying too near the edge. But Max Mosley muddied the waters in 2008, when he successfully sued the News of the World for £60,000 for releasing footage of his S/M orgy. The judge decided that his private conduct ("however unconventional") was protected by privacy law. Some journalists argued that the orgy was conduct unbecoming of the head of FIA, the governing body of Formula One, but Mosley won the day.

He mustn't be allowed to win this round. Nothing could be more inimical to the freedom of the press than to insist that newspapers alert the objects of their attention before publication. It would be like ringing up the Mr Big of a crime syndicate and telling him you were on your way to arrest him. Like emailing a burglar on his way to commit a crime, rather than seizing him red-handed. Imagine if the Telegraph had had to contact all the MPs who had fiddled their expenses, and let them know they were about to be exposed. Imagine if the chap who allegedly bribed Pakistani cricketers had to be rung up and alerted to the fact that he'd been rumbled. Can you imagine the blizzard of legal injunctions that would follow, the machinery of suppression that would be swung into action? Think how unmanageable it would be if the law were applied across the news-gathering globe. You'd hardly be able to bring out a paper at all.

Journalism has to remain a law unto itself. It has its own ways of pursuing stories, establishing facts, checking details and sending the story out into the world, to excite the innocent and inflame the guilty. It is not part of its remit to alert the bad guys – whether it be Richard Nixon or whoever – that they're about to be stitched up.

Fighting crime the futile way

Spare a thought for Phoenix Jones, who recently donned a skin-tight rubber suit, a bulletproof vest and a mask over a woolly balaclava, and set out to fight crime in his home city under the nom de guerre Guardian of Seattle. Clearly influenced by the movie Kick-Ass, he got his ass kicked, and his nose broken, when he tried to break up a fight involving a gunman. He's one of a group of nine would-be superheroes who give themselves tough names like Catastrophe, Thunder 88, Buster Doe and Penelope (Penelope?) and look hilariously silly in group photographs.

Can I offer them some advice? Guns. The central implausibility of Marvel comics and their offshoots was that superheroes could defeat gun-wielding villains by moving faster than speeding bullets or flinging sticky goo at them. Guys: you can't, unarmed, get the better of chaps with guns. No matter how impressive your Ninja helmet or your plastic six-pack.

Never forget the point of academia

It's been a popular sport in the last few years to decry the subjects of modern academic inquiry: media studies degree courses entitled "If You Ain't a Slater, Then See You Later: hierarchy and hegemony in EastEnders." Lectures on "He is Not Dead, he Only Sleepeth: symbol and subtext in Zombie Apocalypse II." Personally, I think intensive study of anything at all – except possibly morris dancing – is good for the inquiring mind. But I'm baffled by Salford University's forthcoming two-day convention on Take That and Robbie Williams.

The university reckons that the boy band's reunion "offers an excellent opportunity for scholars from a range of academic disciplines to discuss key issues arising from this contemporary popular music phenomenon". I can't really see the "key issues arising" from Take That's recent history, nor which "academic disciplines" could deal with it.

I don't think it has much to do with literature, unless someone writes a paper linking the band's "Back for Good" ("Got a fist of pure emotion/ Got a head of shattered dreams") to the knight's dream in Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci". I can't see them as a sociological phenomenon to be puzzled over in textbooks (Millionaire singer agrees to sing with group of millionaire singing friends.) I can't see it rocking thegender studies department in a meaningful way (Randy heterosexual renews friendship with other randy heterosexuals). I can see only a successful vocal group shedding its most irritating member, watching him make a mint as a solo act, then welcoming him backwhen their fortunes (and his) decline. That's economics, surely?

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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