Other people's lives are more than just a public peep show

The right not to be known

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Only if Humphrey the cat had had it off with Roy Hattersley's mongrel, Buster, could yesterday have been a better day for our middle range tabloids. As it was, Humphrey's exile to south London rated greater coverage in the Daily Mail than did the collapse of Yamaichi Securities and the implosion of the South Korean economy. But the Downing Street moggy still rated considerably fewer column inches than did the private tribulations of the Spencer family, and the agony of all those caught up in the aftermath of the death of Michael Hutchence.

In the case of Earl Spencer, revenge was sweet for the editors who he had turned away from his sister's funeral, and upon whose venerable heads he had then heaped the most effective scorn. In a courtroom in South Africa - all in the public domain and without anyone having to bug a single phone or pay a single paparazzo - a tale was told of serial adultery and marital unpleasantness. "Twelve women in 5 months" became the memorable statistic of the week, just as the most durable image was of the wronged wife and her bizarre new ally, Chantal Collopy (one of the women who had collaborated in wronging her), walking together to the courtroom, the sun catching their beautiful long hair.

The Michael Hutchence story, being a continuing saga, we had got round to slagging off Bob Geldof as the "man what drove him to it" - though we weren't quite finished with Hutchence the Wild Child. With Hutchence still unburied, I discovered (in the Express, "Star who lived and died for sex") that his genitalia had been nicknamed the Taj Mahal - for reasons that seemed clear to Express journalist Louise Gannon, but that mystified me - and that one ex-lover had said of him, "The first time we went to bed, he did six things within the hour that I was sure were illegal." Ms Gannon, who is more of a woman of the world than I am, comments that "one can only imagine what `illegal acts' Hutchence initiated."

But, oh, how salacious! How titillating! Better than a Joan Collins novel! Juicier than a nice murder! And just in case any of us were guiltily wondering whether we had a right to know any of this - whether its disclosure was really in the public interest - the intelligent Henry Porter was on hand in the Mail to reassure us. Lambasting the Earl's support for restrictions on the press, Mr Porter averred that "the most vocal advocates of a privacy law are those with most to hide". Take, for instance, the revelations about Robin Cook's affair and split from his wife. Says Porter, "Naturally, any man experiencing this kind of upheaval is affected and it is as well for voters to be in possession of this information."

It would be easy at this point to accept Porter's argument on the basis that he shares with Gannon unique insights into the human condition, such that "this information" helps him to make useful judgements on Foreign Secretaries and others. But before we do, we should perhaps read on. "Of course," he continues, referring in part to the Sunday Mirror's tidal duvet expose of former MP, Piers Merchant, "there are important criticisms to be made about the conduct of the Press ... particularly when mini video cameras are deployed in people's bedrooms."

No, Mr Porter, this will not do; your argument has just fallen apart. If it is in the public interest to know about Mr Merchant's affairs (so that we may the more accurately judge him), then his words to Ms Anna Cox, his endearments, his passion should also be in the public domain. Given the dangerous fondness of public men for erotic asphyxiation these days, we are entitled to inspect them for signs of attempting to enhance their orgasms. We need to know how happy politicians' and rock-stars' marriages are, or what trouble their children are in. If this is best accomplished by hiding cameras in their boudoirs, then what's the problem?

And do not many of these folk court publicity in the first place? It is their choice to talk about their sweet kiddies to interviewers, to be photographed in flattering light for publication, to tread the boards before us. Does not this justify our interest in those aspects of their lives that they would rather not share with us? Take, for example, CNN tycoon Ted Turner and his speech to an editors' lunch, where he claimed that he and his wife, Jane Fonda, make love three times a day. This prompted another femme du monde, the sceptical Glenys Roberts in yesterday's Family Values (ie sex obsessed) Mail to wonder, "does anything go on behind the bedroom door?" and to attempt to answer the question. Ted had, surely, brought Ms Roberts upon himself. Hadn't he?

Well yes, if you believe that the dinner party guest to whom you confided your dislike of your brother-in-law, say, is then entitled to take secret photographs of you nude in bed, or rummage through your rubbish bin in search of further information. Or if you accept that, should the local paper snap you and your smiling children on the way to school, they are then morally clear to publish purloined details of your son's poor academic record in the next edition.

But you don't believe that, do you? Your private life is your own affair and your family's, messy and complicated as it is. And so it it must be with others. Michael Hutchence? Look, it's none of your business. Earl Spencer? It's none of your business. Len and Betty Tubb? Really, it's none of your goddamned business. South Korea goes belly up? Now that one is your business. If you can find out about it.

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