Sunday 17 April 2016

Privacy and the Public Eye

Two stories involving press intrusion into the lives of the rich and the powerful. Is this ever justified?

Let's have a look at the first story. Well, as much as our friends at the injunction-happy Carter Ruck will let us. As reported everywhere else in the world except England and Wales, a celeb has been caught with their pants down in a threesome behind their spouse's back (apparently) and there are added claims of extra-marital jollies in a £500-a-night hotel. In other words the kind of story that is the gutter press's stock-in-trade, and one bound to linger in the collective memory for as long as it takes the next scandal to come along.

Then we have the tale of John Whittingdale, the government's so-called Minister of Fun and leading figure in Vote Leave. Whittingdale, as everyone knows thanks to this week's disclosures, was previously in a relationship with a sex worker. The question therefore arises whether we, as punters who read the output of our wonderful British press, have a right to know about the comings (ahem) and goings in celebrity and politicians' bedrooms.

The unsatisfactory answer is it depends. As someone who grew up in the golden age of Tory sex scandals in the 1990s, in hindsight no one really needed to know about David Mellor's affair, or the unfortunate circumstances attending the premature passing of Stephen Milligan MP. Everyone has the right to a private life, regardless of the peccadilloes and moral hypocrisies that inhabit it. In my view, what is private is fair game for scrutiny if a clear public interest beyond prurience and gossip can be demonstrated. Being in the public eye should not make you fair game. For our "anonymous" celebrity and their family no such public interest justification exists. Whittingdale, however, is a different matter.

You could argue that his relationship is nobody else's business, and that argument would be correct. Not that that prevented hacks from three different papers from prying into his affairs. Yet for all three of them to then sit on the story? Hmmm. For three papers to sit on a story they had invested time and resource in investigating, especially when two of the titles ordinarily dress up tittle tattle as news is a touch suss, shall we say. Were the papers uncharacteristically reticent because they feared Whittingdale would implement Leveson's recommendations if they stung him, or were the stories saved up as leverage to hold over the minister? That in itself becomes a matter of public interest trumping Whittingdale's right to privacy. The disclosure is a necessary casualty of the public interest.

And then there's today's splash in the Mail on Sunday about another of Whittingdale's relationships. Hardly scandalous, but claims that Stephanie Hudson - a woman on the fringes of celebrity Z-listdom - was privy to confidential cabinet papers is also a matter of public interest. As such, The Mail were right to publish. Whittingdale has a serious case to answer, and the longer his stays schtum the more it will add to Dave's growing encumbrance of woe.


David Timoney said...

The public interest story is not what John Whittingdale did betwen the sheets (hence the many press articles defending Olivia King and the disinterest over his use of but the behaviour of the press (and this is where there is a clear difference with the case of David Mellor).

You don't need to be familiar with the newspaper industry to know that decisions on stories are only made after initial enquiries. In other words, junior hacks first do the legwork and then seniors intervene. That multiple papers thought this worth investigating, and then decided to spike, suggests a difference of opinion between these levels - i.e. the seniors were treating Whittingdale differently to the norm.

What this points to is not a desire to use the story as leverage but a realisation that publication would damage an ally - a Culture Secretary who was unsympathetic to both Leveson and the Beeb. In other words, this is not about a conflict of interest but a congruence.

BCFG said...

This is a story of abuse of power by the unfree press.

Even if you regard the press as free it certainly highlights a contradiction between the notion of a free press and the power that it can exercise. One which the free press brigade will struggle to answer and justify. Won't stop them trying though!