UK Liberty

Gag (snigger) on press puts society in peril, writes former Archbishop in the News of the Screws

Posted in privacy by ukliberty on July 28, 2008

News of the Screws – so-called, dear reader, because of their apparent focus on celebrity sex, or “kiss and tell” stories.

For example, today’s top stories include “Ronaldo wore cast when he bedded me”, “Sylvia plays angel to Michelle’s devil as they talk sex”, “Student had sex with three men while high on valium”, “I was paid £200 for sex [says student]”, and “Sven double’s secrets”  is a story about the sexual attentions enjoyed by a lookalike of Sven Goran Erikkson.  That’s just today, and it is by no means out of the ordinary. Nor are they adverse to stories about celebrity drug consumption.

The News of the World doesn’t have a good history with regard to privacy, either.  An investigation into data protection offences led the Information Commissioner’s Office to a Hampshire private investigator and positively identified 19 News of the World journalists making 182 transactions (see What Price Privacy, What Price Privacy now?, and Lord Ashcroft), as well as other newspapers including that other bastion of morality, and current defender of the News of the World, the Daily Mail (top with 58 journalists and 952 transactions) – their payments fuelling “not just an isolated business operating occasionally outside the law, but one dedicated to its systematic and highly lucrative flouting” (Ashcroft) – many transactions being allegedly unlawful.  The Hampshire investigator was by no means the sole investigator in the UK.

Also the the News of the World has recently been forced to compensate Jordan and Peter Andre for defaming their parenting skills,  Cherie Blair in relation to a story about a supposed feud with Sarah Brown, and Robert Murat, a suspect in the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

“Our motto is the truth; our practice is the fearless advocacy of the truth.”

Lord George Carey, former Archbishop, wrote an article for this great guardian of public decency and morality,  bless him:

A DANGEROUS precedent has been set this week in the victory of Max Mosley over the press.

Specifically, my Lord, the News of the World in one particular instance.

The first major victim is Free Speech itself. Without public debate or democratic scrutiny the courts have created a wholly new privacy law. In itself that’s bad enough.

No, they haven’t created “a wholly new privacy law”, the law has existed since 1950, and was given “further effect” in English law by the Human Rights Act 1998.  Perhaps he means, English privacy law is developing.

And of course there is scrutiny, too – because it is all over the newspapers.

And perhaps Parliament will have a debate when it returns from recess.

But, as a Christian leader, I am deeply sad that public morality is the second victim of this legal judgement. Unspeakable and indecent behaviour, whether in public or in private, is no longer significant under this ruling.

In fact, the issue is, “is it in the public interest or merely interesting to the public to publish the story?” and the judge said that it isn’t necessarily in the public interest to know about someone taking part in consensual activities with other adults in private.

And in our celebrity-obsessed age this is a hazardous route to take.

In the past a public figure has known that scandalous and immoral behaviour carries serious consequences for his or her public profile, reputation and job. Today it is possible to both have your cake AND to eat it.

But a case can be clearly made for a direct link between private behaviour and public conduct. If a politician, a judge, a bishop or any public figure cannot keep their promises to wife, husband, etc, how can they be trusted to honour pledges to their constituencies and people they serve?

To be fair I’ve occasionally subscribed to this sentiment but on the other hand that’s a lot of people out of a job.  In any case does lying to your wife, husband, etc necessarily mean that no-one else can trust you? No.

Max Mosley claimed that what consenting adults do with each other behind closed doors—however depraved, brutal and repugnant—is both private and harmless. I think that is deplorable. And I believe most people would ridicule his claim.

How on earth is the public harmed when an ‘immoral’ thing done in private stays private?

This is a bleak, deeply-flawed “anything goes” philosophy. It is also dangerous and socially undermining, devoid of the basic, decent moral standards that form the very fabric of our society.

The new High Court ruling prevents press investigations into matters of clear public interest. It needlessly shackles the press and removes the right of the public to make informed moral judgements.

Rubbish.  HeadofLegal sums it up:

to lawyers in this field there is indeed nothing new in the idea that it’s now possible to go to court to complain of a breach of privacy under the approach developed by Eady J himself at first instance, and approved by the Court of Appeal, in McKennitt v Ash, following Campbell v MGN in which the House of Lords recognised this new form of action. Nor is there anything new in the principles Eady J applied – just as he said. He asked first, whether Max Mosley had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the circumstances; he concluded that he did. And he asked, secondly, if, weighing the competing Convention rights to privacy on one hand and freedom of expression of the other, there is any countervailing public interest justifying the intrusion. He concluded that there wasn’t.

Back to Carey:

Judge Eady’s ruling may have made legal history. But I, for one, fear the consequences.

The irony of all this, of course, is that without the willingness of the News of the Screws, or another paper, to promise  one of the dominatrices £25,000 (she got half that because she couldn’t get a Sieg Heil out of Mosley for the NotW journalist Neville Thurlbeck), and possibly blackmail the other women involved, we would be none the wiser about what Mosley got up to in private.

So I would ask George Carey, what is the real threat, if there is one, to public morality: Max Mosley or a sex obsessed newspaper?

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