“Rich person suffers horrible mishap” is exactly the kind of story that brings a warm glow to the schadenfreude-prone. Even more satisfying is this: “Rich woman suffers horrible mishap”. And if the story happens to be about a rich woman with a talent for self-publicity, the glee flows in torrents. Which means that Kim Kardashian being tied up and robbed of several million euros worth of jewellery, at gunpoint, in a Parisian hotel has made a lot of people very happy.
I’ve had a conversion. Frankly, people have been taking the fucking piss out of marriage for too fucking long. Previously, I was of the opinion that marriage should be simply the union of two people who love each other. A public promise to care for each other – attending to each other’s needs, sharing their property, speaking for each other should one lose their voice – and a way to knit that relationship into the fabric of extended family. Continue reading
It’s one piece of Portuguese law that, thanks to the publicity around a horrific private tragedy, is curiously well-known to followers of British news: “arguido” means “person of interest”. We know this because of the McCanns, who were declared arguido is relation to the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine. To be an arguido implies that one is suspected of involvement in a crime, but it’s some way short of being arrested or charged – and because it confers additional rights and protections on a person involved in an investigation, some individuals will apply to become arguido of their own volition. Continue reading
Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow comes out in favour of privacy restrictions on reporting in this Guardian interview with Ann Widdecombe. And strongly in favour, too, even disallowing the public interest defence in cases of hypocrisy:
AW Would you welcome a privacy act, Jon Snow?
JS I would welcome a privacy act, yes.
AW We have the scoop! Jon Snow says, “Bring in a privacy act.”
JS I believe that the tabloid media, in particular, have so intruded into the private lives of public people that they have brought it upon themselves that there should indeed be a privacy act.
AW I think that is absolutely right. I think…
JS Damn me, Ann Widdecombe, I didn’t think we’d have to sit here and agree.
AW And I consider that quite a coup, to have got Jon Snow to agree with me that we need to curtail the rights of the media. Thank you, Jon Snow…
JS I am totally opposed to, and would go to the gallows to prevent, censorship. But needless intrusion into the private lives of anybody…
AW Let me ask you this. Let’s imagine a politician – I don’t care whether it’s male or female, Jon, but let’s imagine a politician. You’ve got a politician who has never made any pronouncements about morality, who has a mistress. Is that the public’s business?
JS Not at all.
AW You’ve just put a lot of the tabloids out of business.
JS Well, they’re going out of business anyway, so that won’t mean much…
I think the hypocrisy exemption is valid, if only because in those cases the private behaviour becomes the counter-argument to the political statements of the public figure (it’s possible that this is only a sop to my own prurience). But I approve very much of what I see as the logical extension of Snow’s statement: the hope for a culture where private, consensual actions are off-limits for both the state and the press.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009
When Rebekah Wade gave her Cudlipp lecture this January, her description of the journalistic process was breathless excitement with a few throwaway suggestions of democratic principle:
Our ancient craft is to tell many people what few people know. The sheer thrill of disclosure motivates the best journalists. And as an industry, we should use our collective power to campaign for the freedom to do so. […]
One efficient, if immoral, way of telling many people what few people know is to hack mobile phone inboxes while fishing for stories – a practice for which Wade’s employer News International has had to pay £1m in compensation. And the Guardian’s front page story on the News Of The World’s surveillance habits (by Nick Davies, who has been following the use of dark arts in newsrooms for some years now) is also a great example of telling many what few people know. Except that, according to Wade’s lecture, scrutiny of the media is a special case where disclosure ought to be avoided:
Sometimes I suspect most of the media commentariat are suffering from Munchausen syndrome. They are certainly making us suffer unnecessarily! Only journalism allows us to exist. Yet they often decry its existence. And it’s the epitome of self-flagellation when The Guardian publishes Max Mosley’s views on press freedom. The relentless negativity, this almost morbid fascination with our own demise, must stop. […] You would understand if the public were interested in our navel-gazing. But they are not.
News International papers are currently avoiding navel gazing with admirable consistency: the Sun and the News Of The World aren’t running the story at all, while the Times has tucked the story away in their “More News” section. This is a story with many angles – privacy, self-regulation, the role of the police, the relationship between media corporations and parliament. It just happens that all these angles conflict with the mission statement that Wade lay out at the end of her lecture:
We need to ask ourselves: Can we unite to fight against a privacy law that has no place in a democracy ? Can we agree that self-regulation is the best way to deal with the occasional excesses of a free press? Can we have a press that has the courage and commitment to listen to and fight for its readers? Can we survive this economic climate if we keep investment in journalism at the heart of what we do? I suggest to you tonight: in the words of Bob The Builder, plagiarised by Barak Obama. Yes. We. Can.
Wade’s employers have been “investing in journalism” by invading privacy and then paying off the victims with huge compensation. Self-regulation has failed to deal with that practice. And she proposes that the newspaper industry “listen to and fight for” their readers by hiding their own workings from the people who consume their product. The real excitement in this story is that it offers to throw wide open all those things that Wade would rather nobody talked about.
© Sarah Ditum 2009
Ms Elizabeth Mullan, Mr Robert Weir & Ms Morag Campbell complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined “Anniversary shame of Dunblane survivors”, published in the Scottish Sunday Express on 8 March 2009, intruded into their sons’ private lives in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
The complaint was upheld. […]
[The boys] had done nothing to warrant media scrutiny, and the images appeared to have been taken out of context and presented in a way that was designed to humiliate or embarrass them. Even if the images were available freely online, the way they were used – when there was no particular reason for the boys to be in the news – represented a fundamental failure to respect their private lives. Publication represented a serious error of judgement on the part of the newspaper.
Although the editor had taken steps to resolve the complaint, and rightly published an apology, the breach of the Code was so serious that no apology could remedy it.
And that’s where the judgement ends, because that’s where the PCC’s powers end. But then, we already knew that press self-regulation doesn’t work: if judgements like these had any value, newspapers would avoid them by not publishing cheap, intrusive, salacious pieces in the first place. The PCC is right at least that an apology can’t remedy the damage already done. It’s also highly unlikely to dissuade future journalists from commiting more damage of the same kind.
(I originally blogged here on the Express’ Dunblane story and the reaction to it.)
© Sarah Ditum 2009.
Any support for the Sense About Science campaign to prevent libel laws from being used over issues of scientific evidence must be a good thing. Only, in the case of the Daily Mail championing Simon Singh, it’s not totally clear whether they’re backing his cause, or recruiting him to their own.
When I blogged at Liberal Conspiracy about libel and privacy laws, I suggested that Mr Justice Eady was enjoying a moment of grace with the press. That moment is over now, as far as the Mail is concerned:
Justice Eady’s critics accuse him of creating, almost single-handedly, a privacy law in Britain as a result of his interpretations of the 1998 Human Rights Act, in which he invariably seems to give more weight to privacy than to freedom of expression.
Most notably, Justice Eady ruled in a case involving Formula One boss Max Mosley that it was wrong for the News of the World to expose his liking for sadomasochistic orgies with paid ‘ professional dominatrices’, saying: ‘I accept that such behaviour is viewed by some people with distaste and moral disapproval, but in the light of modern rights-based jurisprudence that does not provide any justification for the intrusion on the personal privacy of the claimant.’
In another high-profile case, he stopped a cuckolded husband selling his story to the Press about a sporting celebrity who had seduced the husband’s wife. Adulterers, said the judge, deserve privacy like anyone else.
Via a succession of such rulings, the judge has built up a formidable body of case law upon which public figures can rely when they wish to gag newspapers or publishers.
What’s really interesting is how the Mail bend Singh into their own ongoing narratives. Before you even get into the body copy, just in the headline, Singh has been labelled as the “brave scientist” going up against an implaccable system – just as Andrew Wakefield was a “brave scientist” when the Mail was generating vaccine terror. The medical evidence is presented in standard ‘debate’ style: the chiropractors claims are balanced with a neutral “However, many in the traditional medical profession view the therapy with deep suspicion.”
And the Mail is careful to keep this within the limits of free speech rather than evidence or public interest: Singh, the article says, “won’t stop until he has guaranteed that the principle of free speech – which is something about which judges such as Justice Eady seem remarkably nonchalant – remains at the very heart of our British way of life.” They’re on the right side for now. But this isn’t a watershed in the Mail’s commitment to accurate journalism and responsible medical coverage. The medical pages today contain the usual mix of wonder drugs and alarmism, and when Singh’s case is over, they’ll be ready for their next Wakefield.
I’ve got a new post up at Liberal Conspiracy, where I ramble speculatively about the way Mr Justice Eady’s decisions on media law seem to be acting in combination against scrutiny at all levels of reporting: the sex scandal, science coverage, and anonymous whistle-blowing:
It’s not unusual for public figures to experience severe reversals of reputation, and the distance between “nation’s sweetheart” and “national disgrace” can be as short as a few column inches. But Mr Justice Eady’s recent rehabilitation in the eyes of the press is a remarkable one – for the swiftness with which some editors have shifted position, and for what it suggests about the future possibilities for scrutiny in the media.
Edit: I accidentally gave Eady a peerage, so I’ve fixed that here.
Let’s say you’re a senior public official with a critical role in the judicial system. Someone like a judge. And let’s say you did something really, seriously bad – so bad that you were found guilty of misconduct. You know, misconduct in the administration of law and punishment with the power to demolish lives through one bad decision. You’re this person, but no one will ever find out who you are:
[Leader of the presiding three-member tribunal] Marks and his colleagues said that if barristers had known about the behaviour which had led to the reprimand, they would have used the information to try and get an adjournment of hearings or “in some cases an application that the judge in question not hear the particular case.
“This clearly has adverse implications for the public and for the administration of justice generally,” they said.
Marks also said judges could also experience “intrusive” and overblown reporting by the media of their misconduct. This could “cause an undermining of authority generally and thus prejudice any further employment prospects of whatever sort in the wake of a reprimand”, they added.
They were “impressed” by the Ministry of Justice’s argument that judges were entitled to a “reasonable expectation of privacy”.
The Guardian, 15 June 2009
I am going to stick my neck right out here and say that, whatever implications there are in getting a judge with a proven track record of incompetence thrown off of a case, they’re probably good ones as far as justice is concerned. But, you know, reasonable expectation of privacy, people have a job to do, and it’s hardly fair if they get the press all over them every time they slip up, is it?
In the first case dealing with the privacy of internet bloggers, the judge ruled that Mr Horton had no “reasonable expectation” to anonymity because “blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity”.
Coming down in favour of freedom of expression, the judge [Mt Justice Eady] also said that even if the blogger could have claimed he had a right to anonymity, the judge would have ruled against him on public interest grounds.
The judge added that there was “much force in the argument that any wrongdoing by a public servant, save perhaps in trivial circumstances, is a matter which can legitimately be drawn to the attention of the public by journalists. There is a growing trend towards openness and transparency in such matters.”
The Times, 16 June 2009
Keep up, people: judges are private individuals, bloggers are public, judges serve the public, and wrongdoing by public servants needs to be exposed, except when the wrongs are being done by judges, in which case it’s much better if nobody knows who they are. Sorted? Good, because apparently that head-pounding contradiction is the law now.
The decision by Ian and Dawn Askham (the Scottish couple infected with the world’s sexiest variant of flu) to retain Max Clifford’s publicity services troubles Ivor Gaber, professor of journalism at the University Of Bedfordshire. It troubles him so much he went on PM last week to talk about it in a head-to-head with Clifford:
This is a matter of major public interest and I think it is legitimate for the public to want to know from Mr and Mrs Askham, ‘What did it feel like, what were you symptoms, where did you catch it?’ and I am very uneasy – not just about this particular case but the precedent it is setting – that issues that ought to be in the public domain, that you shouldn’t have to buy a particular newspaper to find out about, are being monopolised and are being sold to the highest bidder.
This is overstating the value of the Askhams and the power of the Clifford by quite a lot: there’s nothing they can tell about their experience that’s more in the public interest than the information which epidemiologists and doctors can supply, and there’s nothing they can say in an exclusive that won’t be carried by every media outlet at the next print run or broadcast. But he’s got a point – anything which restricts the freedom of the press to ask important questions is conceivably a bad thing for reporting. I read Ian Hislop and Alan Rusbriger’s evidence to the select committee on culture, media and sport and nod my thoughtful little head at their concerns about the suppressive effect of a possible privacy law.
But, despite a series of interesting high court rulings on the matter, there is no privacy law as yet. And maybe, suggests PM presenter Eddie Mair, hiring Clifford is the best way for the couple to protect themselves from the extreme interest of the press. Gaber disagrees:
The media’s not this hungry beast waiting to spit people out if they’ve got a story to tell. I can’t imagine that there’d be a newspaper or TV or radio station that would want to take Mr and Mrs Askham to the cleaners. They’d wanna help them tell their story. […] When we’ve got issues like this where there are members of the public who are caught up in matters of major public interest, they don’t need media protection.
This, by the way, is a media including the same organs that libeled someone who happened to be nearby when a child went missing, dug out discrediting stories on victims of police brutality, pillaged Facebook to tell their readers how shameful teenagers are, and, when they can’t turn up the information they’re hoping for, turns to wiretaps and computer monitoring to find it. You know, that old trustworthy media. Clifford’s counter-argument was that the subjects of a story deserve to see some of the financial benefit their story will bring to the press. Maybe they do. But until there’s some kind of buddy system to help people negotiate unexpected press interest – or, I don’t know, a regulatory body that does its job – Clifford is maybe the best investment you could make in a situation like the Askhams’, however much he offends your journalistic ideals.