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Simon Carr

Simon Carr: Legislation could be too blunt to draw a fine line

Sketch: Hislop's little face – he is well cast as Lord Gnome – coloured as he told her off

"Celebrity," Private Eye editor Ian Hislop told the Privacy and Injunctions Joint Committee, "is the exchange of privacy for money." At that very moment I got a text message saying the Speaker's wife was in Portcullis House with someone who looked like that traveller she was doing a reality telly show with. It generated a lurid series of speculations about a big, fat, gypsy job-swap with the Speaker.

Was that a silly, trivial, salacious, degrading piece of gossip? Or was it an important reflection of silly/trivial/degradation of public life by a public figure?

If this committee gets what some of us suspect it wants (statutory regulation of the press) this sort of question will have to be ruled on.

Another point, then. Steve Barnett (he runs a university teaching journalism) said, "If a Cabinet minister is found drunk in a gutter that would be a matter of public interest. But what if it were his 19-year-old son?" At that juncture, Paul Boateng looked down and rubbed his face distractedly. His own son, it is reported, is up on sex attack charges. How should this coincidence of interests be reported? Should Lord Boateng resign from the committee to prevent his personal experience influencing his decision? Or would his decision be better informed by his experience? These questions are beyond the reach of statute law.

Jean Corston brought up the "private bedroom behaviour" that is nobody's business but those involved. Hislop's little face – he is well cast as Lord Gnome – coloured as he told her off: "A Minister of Defence with a mistress put up at public expense and all her family employed in the ministry – and YOU AREN'T ALLOWED TO KNOW!"

But the problem, repeatedly put, was how do you define in law where the public interest lines are drawn. The various codes, for instance, can be quickly adjusted as the public mood changes. And newspapers, being more reactive to the public moods than is the state, wouldn't, ideally, be confined in a legislative cat's cradle.

No one can say that Milly Dowler's family were anything but innocent and suffering victims. But the vengeance inflicted on the paper was little short of biblical, and far beyond anything a court could have provided.