David Aaronovitch: What right do we have to pry into a footballer's sex life?

'Enlist me in the army for press freedom so that I too can wreck someone's life for no good reason'
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The Independent Online

Senator, I knew Jack McConnell. Jack McConnell was a friend of mine. Back in the good old days he was the president of Stirling University students' union and I was dating his vice-president (that's how long ago this was). Since then I have never felt the need to keep Jack posted on my sex life, so I was surprised on Tuesday to find myself being told about his. It's a bit awkward when a chap you haven't seen for 19 years, together with his wife – who you haven't met at all – start talking about their marital difficulties. Look, old man, it really isn't any of my business.

It doesn't make it any more my business just because McConnell is about to become Scotland's third First Minister in two years or because he and his wife were addressing a press conference. But is it, instead, my human right to know all about Jack? Mr Neil Wallis says indeed it is, and furthermore it is his human right to tell me all about it. Democracy is at stake.

As a supporter of liberty, I do not enjoy having the editor of The People on my team. I feel like an elderly Quaker at a Stop the War demo, who finds that the bloke marching next to her is wearing an Osama T-shirt and is shouting "Death to the Jews!" It's disconcerting, a bit embarrassing, and it makes you wonder whether you're actually on the right side.

Nevertheless, metaphorically speaking, Mr Neil Wallis points at all of us journalists from out of his scarlet frame, and tells us that press freedom needs us. That a judge should have issued an injunction against him naming a famous person involved in extra-marital houghmagandy is, to Wallis, a blow against journalism as a whole. "This," he thundered, "threatens us all."

Well, Neil, I quake. I cannot sleep. As I sit here typing this I expect, at any moment, the harsh clatter of hobnail boots on the Hampstead cobbles. Enlist me now in the army for journalistic freedom so that I too can wreck someone's life for no good reason.

Get down off your high horse and smell the coffee, say some of my colleagues. This ruling of Mr Justice Jack's is a dangerous one. Even the absurdly misnamed Lord Wakeham has woken up long enough to say so. The judge has set a precedent by deciding that, even where there is not a formal agreement to keep sexual liaisons secret, nevertheless the law of confidentiality should apply. Thin end of the wedge, old son. "First they came for the kiss-and-tell story-writers, but I did not write that kind of crap, so I stayed silent. Then they came for the paparazzi, but I did not snap celebrities in the buff, so I stayed silent. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me."

Nah. Just about every argument deployed by Mr Wallis and some of his supporters (most notably at the Daily Mail, which has always combined a dry loathing of adultery with a damp passion for reporting it) seems to me to be self-serving and mendacious. There's the one about the poor (but honest) women in the case, exploited by the lascivious, married athlete, and how they have the right to tell their story. Yet one was a lap-dancer by trade, and in one photograph of her you can count the freckles on her upper, upper, upper thigh. Did she think that these blemishes were being counted only by single men on the lookout for wives?

Much too has been made of the argument of David Mellor, columnist at The People, who wrote this weekend to the effect that it was a damn good thing that his affair with Antonia Dethingy had been exposed. "Society," he said, "has much more to lose by not knowing what the rich and famous get up to." "Ah," breathes Connie, "Mellor!" A poacher turned gamekeeper! The columbine gets an extra twist.

But what, exactly, has society to lose here? A footballer may be rich and famous, but he does not exert power over our lives. He plays football, goes on strike, appears in ads for grooming products and that's it. Like the judge, I can see no public interest, but like him I have noticed that papers play fast and loose with this defence. Last weekend's Mail on Sunday front page story about the addiction problems of Lord Irvine's son, for example, made a weaselly link to the recent relaxation of cannabis policing.

Strangely, my analyst friend disagrees with me. MAF belongs to the hard school, it turns out. His argument is not about freedom, as such, but about responsibility. He gets to see a lot of people, part of whose problem is that they don't want to pay for their fun. A sensible footballer knows that much of his attraction derives from his celebrity rather than from his outer (let alone his inner) beauty. Consequently he must be aware that some of his admirers will be mercenary bimbos who will seek to sell their stories to the papers, and yet others will be fantasists whose discretion – in disappointment – is unreliable. Says MAF.

MAF takes the view, therefore, that some public psychological interest is actually served by the printing of these stories, complete with names and improbable details. He would therefore argue that my finding out about Jack's affair is doing me (and Jack) good. He says it makes us both aware that our actions may have consequences.

I for my part am glad he is my friend, and not my analyst.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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