Deborah Orr: Face the facts: if we don't want a privacy law, we need to change our behaviour

The press guards jealously its interest in publishing any old tosh about 'people in the public eye'

Wednesday 10 January 2007 01:00 GMT

How splendid of News International. Rupert Murdoch's media group, which publishes The Sun, The News of the World, The Times, and The Sunday Times, has generously announced that it will no longer be using paparazzi shots of Prince William's girlfriend Kate Middleton. Or, in other words, that it's finally going to refrain from routinely breaking both the guidelines of the self-regulation body the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), and the directions of European case law, both of which uphold the right of people to get on with their private business without being harassed by a bunch of pushy, grasping, gossip peddlers. But only for this one 25-year-old.

Presumably, the women "in the public eye" who have the temerity to step on to beaches while being "too fat", "too thin" or "just right", will continue to be fair game. And why not? Entirely uncelebrated women, after all, are splashed all over the papers while exercising their right to test the limits of their alcohol tolerance. On occasion, their Dad weighs in as well, with a picture of them hospitalised as a result of such repeated experiments. All this unwarranted exposure of private business is "in the public interest".

Presumably, any other means, fair or foul, of gaining fragments of gossip or trivia that can be deemed to be "in the public interest" will continue to be stalwartly defended by News International. It was the News International executive Les Hinton, after all, as code committee chairman of the PCC, who recently declined to rewrite the PCC code "to make it clear that it is unacceptable without an individual's consent, to obtain information about their private life by bribery, impersonation or subterfuge" unless there was a clear public interest.

The request was made by the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, after the prosecution of The News of the World's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, for illegally hacking into the voicemails of celebrities.

The press guards jealously its interest in publishing any old tosh about "people in the public eye" that it can. Usually, this inalienable right to run speculative drivel and factual banality is couched in the grandest terms, even though there are few issues of law-abiding privacy that could really be said to be truly morally contentious and therefore "in the public interest" (certain sexual matters being one).

Often, too, the press complains bitterly about the "complicity" of celebrities in invading their own privacy when it suits them, but turning "nasty" when it doesn't. Always, it is conveniently forgotten that it takes two to create "complicity", and that by bowing to the demands of public relations and flogging the predictable result as news, the press is being just as "collusive" as the "tall poppy" it later demands the moral right to cut down.

Two recent cases suggest, though, that if the press doesn't clean up its own act, then the judiciary might decide to do it for us. The first, which goes back to court next month, concerns the sports personality who managed to obtain an injunction against the man whose wife he'd been having an affair with.

The latter gallant had wished to sell his story to the press, exposing the sports personality and his former wife. The former gallant argued that this would further traumatise his own wife, who had already threatened suicide, and would damage the couple's chances of patching up their family life with their children.

Now, it really is quite a weird thing that the husband who was cheated on finds himself unable to disseminate the facts of his own private life in the media or on the internet, while he is - mercifully - allowed to regale his family and friends with the details to his heart's content.

This odd state of affairs has come about because the judge decided that Article 8 of the human rights act protecting the right to family life in this case outweighed Article 10, which enshrines the right to know. The press is up in arms, of course, not least because this will threaten the sanctity of the "kiss and tell". (That in itself is a good thing, as chequebook journalism is generally pernicious anyway.) Yet many of the other objections the press and media lawyers make to this unprecedented ruling are disingenuous or simply horrible.

First, there is the suggestion that public pillory is an important mechanism for controlling adultery. This is a defence beloved of the Daily Mail, the newspaper that has done more to publicise the banal frequency of adultery than any other, and also of certain media lawyers. Mark Stephens, of Finers Stephens Innocent, declared: 'This is uncharted territory, and it is concerning. Adulterers should not be able to hide behind the skirts of their wives and mistresses. It should be public, that's how morals are kept in check." I'm so glad he feels his strategy has been working so well. Here's another moral imperative. Don't rake muck in public when children are involved. It only makes things worse for them.

There is the usual outcry about hypocrisy too. This man projected himself as "a clean-cut family man", goes the wail. Now he wants falsely to maintain his lucrative image and the law is abetting him. But did he "project himself" thus? Or was there a wider culture which assisted him in doing so? Is it necessary for any paper or media outlet to report on marriages, happy or otherwise, because a person is involved in sport?

Mr Justice Eady, who presided in this case, also presided in the Loreena McKennitt case, in which a Canadian folk-singer won the right to stop a former friend from writing a book about her exposing many dull-sounding private vignettes. Representations were made on behalf of the author, Niema Ash, suggesting that since the singer herself had talked in public about some of the matters, it was OK for anyone to chip in with further information. Mr Justice Eady didn't agree.

His decision has found few fans among press commentators. Stephen Glover, of this paper, contends that Mr Justice Eady is intent on framing by stealth a privacy law for Britain. Frankly, the guy isn't being that stealthy about it. Would he rule that the press should stop drooling over every move that Kate Middleton makes? Certainly he would. And he'd be right.

If the press wants to avoid such an eventuality as a privacy law, and we do, then we've going to have to drop the bluster and take a long look at the sort of behaviour we're defending. Then we might discover that instead of worrying that the internet is packed with uncensored, scurrilous and untrue information that it's not fair we can't publish, we can offer instead properly selective, fair and wise coverage that isn't making people's lives a misery because they are good at sport, can write songs, or are going out with princes. Then we won't find either, that when something really is worth exposing, there's some monolithic privacy law stopping us from doing so.

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