Stephen Glover: Did this beauty cause us to drop our standards?

Monday 15 March 2010 01:00

The blogosphere is awash with crazy people with made-up stories. Last week, some of them mistakenly claimed that a man called David Calvert is really Jon Venables, one of the killers of James Bulger. More than 2,000 people joined a group determined to track him down. Mr Calvert was wrongly accused of being a rapist.

Over in France, the blogosphere was humming with another story, admittedly less incendiary but very possibly also made up. Speculation that Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the wife of the French President, was having an affair with a musician first appeared on Twitter, the microblogging site. Ignored by the mainstream French Press, apart from Le Journal du Dimanche, which treated it ambiguously in a blog on its website, the story leapfrogged into the international media.

My first encounter with it was on the front page of last Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph. There was a large photograph of the beautiful Carla, as well as one of the scarcely less attractive Chantal Jouanno, a French government Minister, with whom Mr Sarkozy was allegedly enjoying a little rest and recreation. The story, written by Henry Samuel in Paris, informed us that France was “swirling with rumours,” and its reported endorsement by the “respected” Journal du Dimanche apparently gave it extra weight.

Naturally I believed it all. I shook my head and pursed my lips. Hadn’t Carla always looked rather flaky? As for the cocky, diminutive Nicolas Sarzozy with his enhanced heels! And wasn’t it typical of the craven French Press to disregard a story about the private life of the President, leaving it to Her Majesty’s Daily Telegraph to hold aloft the torch of truth?

The following day the Daily Mail cleared the decks with a feature about “Mr and Mrs Sarko,” which it flagged on the front. By this time, their respective adulteries had achieved the status of established fact in my mind. Then I came across a piece by John Lichfield, this newspaper’s estimable Paris correspondent, which suggested another angle. The French magazine L’Express had reported that the rumour was begun as a hoax by a French trainee journalist who wanted to see how easy it was to get an unverified assertion from Twitter into the blogosphere and then into the mainstream press.

John wisely did not embrace this version of events because no trainee journalist has yet come forward. There is no more evidence to support the account offered by L’Express than there is to lend credence to the stories of sexual shenanigans. There is, in fact, no evidence at all – only unsourced rumours on the internet. Le Journal du Dimanche has withdrawn its blog, and the fevered speculation on the blogosphere has fallen quiet. Friends in France tell me that British newspapers’ claims that the country is awash with gossip are laughable.

What are we to make of all this? It says something about the way we now report foreign news. A Twitter rumour alleging adultery on the part of a home-grown politician would not be taken up so eagerly by British newspapers. France is treated differently because it is across the Channel, and can be partly imagined. Carla and the President also both look as though they might have affairs, but that does not mean they have. We apply more stringent standards to rumours about our own politicians.

Volte face for Justice Eady on freedom of expression

Mr Justice Eady has not won a widespread reputation as an upholder of a free press. More than any judge, as I have had cause to mention before, he has been in the forefront of developing a new privacy law based on the Human Rights Act.

It was Mr Justice Eady who in 2008 found in favour of Max Mosley in his privacy battle with the News of the World. It was the same Mr Justice Eady who ruled in 2005 that certain passages of a book by the author Niema Ash about her former friend, the Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt, be removed, not because they were untrue but because Ms McKennitt’s privacy had supposedly been infringed.

So it was with some shock that I read a speech by the learned judge delivered at City University last Wednesday. He admitted that the incorporation of the Human Rights Act into English law, as well as decisions by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, had damaged freedom of expression in this country.

This was a state of affairs which he appeared to regret, though he has been the author of many judgments which have had the effect of restricting freedom of expression. Indeed, he offered a short history lesson about the hard-won liberties of the press, to which he was surprisingly sympathetic. He accepted that uncertainty surrounding |the law of libel was inhibiting responsible reporting.

This was not obviously the same judge who has sometimes interpreted the Human Rights Act in a way that has limited newspapers’ freedoms. It was tantamount to Richard Dawkins offering reasons for believing that God might, after all, exist. My colleague Matthew Norman suggested last week that Mr Justice Eady may be contemplating retirement – he is 67 later this month. Might this be a final, partial recantation?

Who needs an agent when you’ve got The Times?

James Harding, the editor of The Times, has indisputably edged the paper upmarket since taking over in December 2007. Yet, like his two immediate predecessors, he believes his readers relish stories about football and footballers on the front page.

A picture of David Beckham dominated last Thursday’s front. The AC Milan player was shown clapping Manchester United fans after his side had lost 4-0 to his old club. He was shown wearing a green and gold scarf, supposedly given to him by a fan, which is the symbol of opposition to the Glazer family’s ownership of United.

I wonder how many Times readers will have welcomed this picture. Do they really want photos of footballers on the front page, particularly one who had come on as a substitute for the losing side?

Wayne Rooney, who scored two goals for Manchester United, and played brilliantly, would have been a worthier candidate. By wearing that scarf, the PR-savvy Beckham was hoping to endear himself to thousands of United fans across the country in a self-serving way, and by giving him such undeserved prominence The Times effectively acted as his agent.

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