Stephen Glover on The Press

The folk singer calling the tune to restrict Press freedoms

Monday 08 January 2007 01:00

Does the name Loreena McKennitt mean anything to you? It doesn't to me, but evidently she is a multi-millionaire Canadian folk singer, and very famous. Ms McKennitt is also fiercely jealous of her privacy, which may possibly explain why I don't know anything about her.

Being of a secretive nature, Ms McKennitt objected when an old friend and business associate by the name of Niema Ash decided to write a book about her. Ms Ash was not bound by any confidentiality agreement. By all accounts, the biography, if that is not too grand a word, is not scurrilous, though it contains information about Ms McKennitt's private life - her diet, her character, her lovers - which she did not wish to be aired.

So the Canadian folk singer went to the High Court where Mr Justice Eady, who seems to be no great friend of a free Press, found in her favour under section eight of the Human Rights Act, which safeguards the right to privacy. Before Christmas his judgement was upheld by Lord Justice Buxton. Passages in the book are being expurgated.

We shall never really know about Loreena McKennitt's private life, at least as long as she has breath in her body. Personally I have no objections, not caring very much about her. But one wonders whether it can be right that information whose veracity no one has challenged should be withheld simply because Ms McKennitt, who is indisputably a public figure, does not want us to know it.

Imagine, for example, that I were to decide to go ahead with my project of writing a warts-and-all biography of Rebekah Wade, the editor of The Sun, who guards her privacy every bit as jealously as Loreena. Rebekah could pop along to see Mr Justice Eady, and he would in all likelihood turn to section eight of the Human Rights Act and declare that her privacy was sacrosanct. Can this be right?

Newspapers like Rebekah's will have to tread a lot more carefully. Many stars, of course, are only too happy to be written about. Publicity is their oxygen. But others guard their privacy. They cheerfully trouser huge amounts of money, and give toe-curlingly self-promoting interviews. They expect us to take them on their own terms. It seems that we can no longer hope for an alternative version.

The English libel laws used to be much loved by the rich and famous. Now these folk have fastened on to section eight of the Human Rights Act.

Only last month, as I wrote in this column, our old friend Mr Justice Eady made a temporary order against a cuckolded husband who wanted to be able to unburden himself to Her Majesty's Press. Turning once more to the infamous section eight, Mr Justice Eady upheld the right to privacy of the rich and famous man who had done the cuckolding. The case comes back to court next month.

Caroline Kean of Wiggin, a media law firm, thinks that, as a result of the McKennitt ruling, newspapers will be unable to publish stories such as the one inspired by of the Beckhams' nanny, who spilled some beans to the News of the World.

More worryingly to most of us, she wonders whether a paper could write about the New Age tendencies of the Blairs or even their imaginative property dealings. I dare say that John Prescott's shenanigans with his secretary might have been kept out of the Press to protect his (or her) privacy.

Journalists and politicians still spend a great deal of time talking about the pros and cons of a privacy law. For all the occasional excesses of the tabloid Press, most are against. What they seem not to have grasped is that, in section eight of the Human Rights Act, we already have an embryonic privacy law which is being merrily developed by the likes of Mr Justice Eady.

Why restraint was called for over Saddam pictures

In my line of business I take a lot of newspapers. Last Sunday and Monday I went around the house turning over copies of them. This was not to protect my children, who are no longer of an impressionable age. I simply could not bear the sight of Saddam Hussein with a rope around his neck.

On Sunday we had the "official" pictures released by the Iraqi authorities. These were bad enough. As is usual these days, the quality papers were no less sparing than the tabloids. Most of the front page of the Independent on Sunday was taken up with a picture of the dead Saddam's head. An equally large photograph in The Observer showed him having a noose put around his neck.

Monday brought an even more terrible crop of "unofficial" pictures of Saddam. These were truly gruesome. Many papers could not bring themselves to publish them on their front pages, but the Daily Mirror and The Guardian showed no restraint. The Daily Mail used a tiny photograph below its masthead.

Some people say that whatever happens should be published. Surely this can't be true. There are plenty of images which papers choose not to run for reasons of taste. In this case newspaper executives presumably thought that television news and the internet were carrying these pictures, and did not want to be left behind.

Were my children young enough to be shocked, I would be pretty upset if my newspaper had one of these pictures on its front. One has to make a decision to access the internet. Television images are fleeting, and there are often warnings about images that are going to be shown. By contrast, newspapers hang about the house. Those editors who showed restraint were right.

'Oscars' won't be the same without Piers

The British Press Awards - the so-called Oscars of journalism - were hamstrung last year because the Mail, Telegraph and Express groups kept away. They were not convinced that Piers Morgan, below, and Matthew Freud, the then owners of the journalists' magazine Press Gazette, which organises the awards, could be relied on to run a respectable and dignified show.

Now Messrs Morgan and Freud have lost control of Press Gazette to Wilmington Media, about which no one has any strong objections. So it seems that most, if not all, of the refuseniks will return to the fold. Wilmington Media will be relieved, as the awards make a good deal of money.

Is it too much to hope that the dinner on 26 March at Grosvenor House in London, at which the awards will be made, will not be disfigured by too many drunken fights, and that the judging will be open and fair?

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