Nothing's so gripping as a good divorce, but we must hold back

Polly Toynbee on privacy legislation
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Now that was a good divorce. How we all enjoyed it, all the pure pleasure of gossip. No point pretending it wasn't fun. It was.

Charles Spencer was a marked man from the day he attacked the press with such venom in front of all the world. Even as they printed sentimental pictures of him alone (except for photographers ), palely loitering among the flowers on Diana's grave, we knew it wouldn't be long before they got him, whatever it took.

But who could have guessed that the man would deliver himself up, free, gratis and for nothing? Papers usually spend thousands of pounds on such stories - in round-the-clock surveillance, bribes and cheque-book confessions. But not this time. He chose to walk into that courtroom and take off all his clothes in public, trading his public reputation for what he hoped would be paying out less money. And how the Windsors must have revelled in his humiliation, after what they'd had to take from him in stony silence at the funeral.

So the natural pleasure most of us take in a cracking good story was not, for once, tinged with the usual guilt about the way the story was obtained. He could, as his wife wished, have had the case heard in Britain where divorce proceedings are private. But no, he ticked the box marked Publicity. Of course Victoria Spencer didn't. Nor did their four children: there were innocent victims, as there always are.

The grisly details of this divorce is a reminder that even in lurid cases, there's rarely a simple right or wrong in people's private lives. Indeed as time goes by, people themselves keep reassessing "the truth" of their own life stories, rewriting emotional history to suit their changing moods, becoming more forgiving or more angry, more self-aware or less. Complete truths don't emerge in courtroom battles nor in newspapers which is why the private can never be fairly reported in public.

Titillating stories about the private lives, loves and griefs of others are the stuff of journalism. Sometimes it is inevitable - Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence - where people who live by the limelight cannot avoid dying and grieving in it too. Often though, the intrusion is utterly unwarranted, glossed over with family values unction to justify aggressive invasion of privacy. Of course we love reading this stuff, even if we disapprove at the same time. Ambiguity is human. The public says they hate it: MORI find 73 per cent of people think the press intrudes too much into the private lives of public figures. And yet they buy the papers that do so most flamboyantly. Nothing odd about that - the law is there to stop us doing things we might do (even if we disapprove of them) were there no law to protect us against our worser selves.

Now the Government is about to introduce a back-door privacy law, cack- handed, the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. For once, it unites those (few) of us in the press who favour privacy legislation, with the great majority who passionately oppose it. The Daily Mail's leader denounced this act that would "gag the press under this privacy law that dare not speak its name" - true. The Sun called it "a threat to the free press" - which it is. For the Lord Chancellor has just admitted that, despite earlier denials, incorporating the European Convention of Human Rights will introduce a privacy law of the worst possible kind.

The story so far: in whatever pact, spoken or unspoken, Labour made with the devil before the election, it was made clear that no finger would be laid on the media. So Labour's new competition law will not tackle the Murdoch empire, although it is the most pernicious example of anti- competitive practice in Britain. Nor will the new Government subject him to the monopoly laws he was allowed to escape under the Tories, nor force him to divest himself of any of his overweening media ownership. Nor was Labour going to legislate on privacy - cowed by the mass opposition of all the press (bar this paper and the Guardian).

But Labour always said it would incorporate the Human Rights Convention. That convention has two warring clauses: Article 8 guarantees privacy for the citizen against intrusion by the state and its quangos, while Article 10 guarantees freedom of expression. At first government advice was that the privacy article wouldn't touch the press: it concerned privacy from the state, not from a privately owned newspaper. Now, however, the Lord Chancellor has been embarrassed by a legal opinion that says that the voluntary press self-regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, could be regarded as a public body in law. That means a complainant could take the PCC to court for failing to give protection against some act of media intrusion. What's more, a privacy complainant could get an injunction to prevent publication.

This means Justice Cocklecarrot will interpret privacy case by case, creating law in the worst possible way, according to their lordships' taste. The wording is so hazy, there's no way of knowing how it will go. But if a Robert Maxwell, who so adeptly used the libel laws, wanted to prevent intrusion on the privacy of his bank accounts he could seek an injunction, and if his invaded privacy were published, he could sue the PCC. There will be no "public interest" exemptions, and no distinction between prurient videos of MPs romping in their bedrooms and legitimate investigation of the whereabouts of employees' pilfered pension funds.

What's to be done? Human Rights legislation will be incorporated, so what we need now is our own carefully thought-out privacy law. Opponents always say you can't separate legitimate investigative journalism from nosy prying. But you can. People's (legal) sex lives can be made private by prohibiting papers from publishing anything about them. On the other hand, suspected illegal activity could be investigated unrestrained. There'd be no need for arcane definitions of what is and isn't a private or a public space (currently the muddled PCC code implies that a beach in Brighton in summer may be public , but a Norfolk beach in winter might be deemed private). All that matters is what you can print. That would mean true confessions volunteered by an ex-lover would be just as out of bounds as a snooping camera over the garden wall. A strong public interest clause would only allow exposure of extreme sexual hypocrisy, not just of any old vicar or Tory MP, but only of some telly evangelist, a Dame Jill Knight or a Mary Whitehouse who made their living out of trumpeting family values.

It's time for the press and the Government to bite the bullet. Better far a privacy law argued out in detail in the House of Commons than a haphazard and dangerously catch-all privacy law botched together by the whim of judges.