Do adulterers have a right to privacy?

Rather than simply smirking at lurid stories of infidelity, perhaps it's time to look at the pain to children it can cause
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The Independent Online
As unhappy as the Sunday Mirror may be with the unintended consequences of its latest kill-and-tell feature, its revelations about the love-life of Sebastian "Lord" Coe chime spookily with many of the preoccupations the paper usually finds pruriently pleasurable to its readership

The Sunday Mirror claimed to have taken "no pleasure in exposing the failures of one of our greatest living athletes". Nevertheless, as unhappy as the paper may be with the unintended consequences of its latest kill-and-tell feature, the newspaper's revelations about the love-life of Sebastian "Lord" Coe chime spookily with many of the preoccupations the paper usually finds pruriently pleasurable to its readership.

If their story is true, it would not be quite right to proclaim that the antics of Lord Coe have added to the "gaiety of the nation". Actually, despite our tendency to snicker over allegations of sleaze, such behaviour would be too repellent to make light of. Conducting a secret affair through the years your wife is bearing and nursing your children is despicable. Paying for your mistress to abort a foetus as its half-sibling comes to term is ghastly. Watching your own marriage fall apart, and becoming an absent father - over another affair - is pathetic. Then conducting another affair with another woman with young children and contributing the the break-up of that family too, is shameful.

If indeed this record of infidelity belongs to a man who was a Conservative MP for some years, then it would add the stench of hypocrisy to the list of misdemeanours. Tory members are still banging away about how the breakdown of the family is to blame for many of Britain's social ills. But their private tolerance of sexual incontinence among the great and the good, confirms what we know already. It is not the ruthless pursuit of individualistic self-satisfaction that they are appalled by. Instead it is modern ignorance of the idea that you must reach a certain standing before you can be expected to get away with such behaviour.

Even during periods of great sexual repression, during which the pregnancy of an unmarried girl could destroy her entire life, the rich and aristocratic expected to get away with whatever they pleased. Lord Coe clearly expects such slack to be cut for him as well. His injunction over the weekend that attempted to bar his ex-mistress, Vanessa Lander, from telling her story, confirms that he believes that the law should protect his "privacy".

It is reported that Lord Coe's attempt to block publication was inspired by a decision by the law lords to uphold Naomi Campbell's right to seek drug treatment privately. If this is so, Lord Coe is not the only person to have misunderstood the significance of the ruling in the Campbell appeal.

Mr Justice Fulford, when explaining why he felt he could not agree to Lord Coe's request for an injunction, said that he had to weigh up the competing interests of three parties - Lord Coe, Ms Landers and the newspapers which wished to publish the latter's story, along with their readers. He decided that Ms Landers' right to free speech, and the Sunday Mirror's right to tell its readers about the habits of those in the public eye, outweighed Lord Coe's right to privacy.

Quite so. One might argue if he had won the injunction, this would be a great day for "adulterers". Vanessa Landers has as much right to talk to the press about her affair as Mr Coe has to decline to talk about it. Anyway, since Mr Coe is a Conservative peer, and the Conservative party claims to stand for "traditional family values", it is certainly in the public interest for a newspaper to publish details of Lord Coe's own attitude towards such values.

In the Campbell case, the Mirror's view was that, as a person in the public eye, Ms Campbell had denied drug use, and therefore deserved to be exposed as a hypocrite. Bizarrely, though, the Mirror exposed not evidence of Ms Campbell taking drugs, but of her taking part in self-help treatment open only to those no longer taking drugs and committed to freeing themselves of their drug habits.

Further, since the treatment in question was therapy with a Narcotics Anonymous group, a key aspect of the treatment is the guarantee of anonymity that the organisation promises to, and demands of, all of its users.

The law lord rightly decided that, just as conventional doctors and their patients need confidentiality for the integrity and usefulness of their relationship to be maintained, so too do users of Narcotics Anonymous, be they celebrities or not. It is not in the public interest for a successful method of dealing with addiction to be compromised in the pursuit of a story about a single celebrity's proclivities.

Anyway, what public interest did Campbell's exposure really address, beyond the crude one that anything interesting to the public is in the public interest? It is not news that celebrities, including models, sometimes take drugs which society at large consider to be addictive and harmful.This is why they are illegal.

Likewise it is not news that celebrities, including politicians, sometimes cheat on their wives and betray the trust of their children. But crucially, there is no consensus about whether such behaviour should be considered reprehensible. It is not illegal to lie to your family and cheat on your wife, and nor should it be.

Many people believe that matters of marital fidelity should indeed be a private matter. Tessa Jowell, in her capacity as Minister for Culture and Sport, declared just this, when she announced that the news had no bearing on Lord Coe's ability to lead Britain's bid to host the 2012 Olympics.

But others are less sanguine. We may be broadly agreed that drug addiction tends to point towards serious weaknesses of character. But we are by no means agreed that deceitful disregard for the needs of our families may point in the same direction. There has been much discussion in recent weeks of the rights of mothers, of fathers, and crucially, of children.

In the story of Sebastian Coe's extra-marital affairs, one man and a couple of women admit to deceiving their partners and risking their parental relationships in order to pursue their sexual lives. Perhaps it's time, rather than simply shrugging, tutting, or smirking over lurid stories of infidelity, instead to look at the pain to children such behaviour can cause, and work out properly as a society what rules we should stick to when we have children to care for.

Lord Coe is said to have been particularly upset that revelations about his private life were due to be published during a holiday weekend that he was spending with his four children. What a shame he didn't seem to know that the sort of private life he was conducting is not one a person with young children should even have time for.

It's not that I want Lord Coe made an example of, should he be guilty of all the behaviour alleged. I don't. There's nothing to be gained from huffing and puffing about his position and his job. But I do think that, as a society, we have become ignorant about what sort of undertaking starting a family is, and what sort of commitments it should demand of parents.

Lord Coe appears to have used his wife, a former equestrian champion, as some sort of brood mare. If he feels this is one of the duties required of a responsible father, he's wrong. In the interests of children everywhere, he should jolly well say so in public.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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