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Public interest and private prurience

2011 May 27
by Paul Vallely

I was pleased when my 11-year-old hung a signed Ryan Giggs shirt in a frame in his bedroom. The Man Utd player was a role-model of talent, application, commitment, and achievement. Everyone said he was a nice guy who eschewed the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, flash-spending ways of the contemporary top-flight footballer.

On the way to school on Tuesday I had to explain to my son why the radio was reporting that his hero had been having sex with someone who was not his wife, allegedly as the BBC put it. Perhaps 11 is a good age to take another look at the feet of heroes. Perhaps. But I had no choice over the timing thanks to the Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming who used parliamentary privilege to out Ryan Giggs as the footballer with the super-injunction trying to keep his private life private.

There has been a lot of self-righteous humbug talked in recent days about the wrongness of super-injunctions by newspapers desperate to discredit a system which prevents them from printing salacious celebrity sex stories. The press has been full of bogus exasperation about the 75,000 people who had posted Mr Giggs’s name on Twitter and said the law was therefore absurd – as was trying to gag the media in an internet age.

The High Court did not agree. When Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers applied to overturn the order “in the public interest” the court insisted there was “still something to be achieved by an injunction”. Indeed. My son does not use Twitter, but he listens to the BBC. This was only “Britain’s worst-kept secret” to social networkers and in the metropolitan media bubble.

None of this is to absolve Ryan Giggs of his bad behaviour. It is simply to say that his betrayal does not remove responsibility from others – judges, Twitterers, MPs or editors.

Judges have allowed too many super-injunctions recently. One was granted to the commodities trader, Trafigura, to stop The Guardian reporting on its methods of toxic waste disposal in Africa. Another was given to the former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Sir Fred Goodwin who was, allegedly, having an affair with a senior RBS colleague – a breach of corporate governance – just when his poor stewardship of the bank necessitated a huge taxpayer bail-out.

But, contrary to the cant talked by the former Sun editor Kelvin McKenzie, the public interest is not the same as what interests public prurience. The only real motive for publishing footballer sex stories is to sell more newspapers.

Another weak argument is the idea that the internet should not and cannot be controlled. Anyone like me who routinely receives not-for-publication bulletins from media lawyers knows that much of the stuff out there on Twitter is plain wrong – like the claims that Jemima Khan had a super-injunction, despite her denials, or like all the Tweets naming the wrong man as the killer of Joanna Yeates. Twitter is a domain of wild mob gossip. For a few high-profile offenders to be sued or prosecuted would mightily discourager les autres.

MPs too need to think carefully. Mr Hemming – hitherto best known for using the Parliamentary expenses system to pay off a mortgage on his business and for fathering a child by his personal assistant and then voting for himself in the News of the World Love Rat of the Year competition – is not the ideal man to have in the vanguard on this. If MPs think a law is bad they should change it, not use their privilege to flout it. The separation of powers is an important constitutional principle. And they would do well to define “the public interest” more overtly so that it is seen to cover incompetent bankers but exclude unfaithful footballers. For it is not in the financial interests of the media ever to do that unaided.

from The Church Times

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