Monday, 23 May 2011

John Hemming MP and The Lives of Others

Goethe said, 'Talent is developed in privacy, ' you know?And it's really true. There is a need for aloneness which I don't think most people realize for an actor.
                                                                                                                   (Marilyn Monroe)

Ok, so Ryan Giggs, footballer, has been playing away from home in more ways than one. After days of speculation and Twitter leaks, the cat is finally out the bag and his "super-injunction" has been washed away. Heading the charge to sweep it aside was a Liberal Democrat MP - claiming that because of the amount of commentary in social media, the legal constraint on publishing Giggs' story in the mainstream media was superfluous, a rather self-fulfilling statement. 

"Super-injunctions", so emotively nicknamed "gagging orders" by the totally impartial media, prevent the media from revealing someone has taken out an injunction to stop publication of information about themselves. These have been used because reporting the mere existence of an ordinary injunction has been used by journalists in the past to spread an atmosphere of "no smoke without fire", defeating the purpose of the process.

We should of course seek to have a country where the public interest is indeed protected from any legal instrument that frustrates the real public interest. Governments of all hues have in recent years been more than happy to introduce all manners of exemptions to the freedom of information laws and cover up their actions where these might embarrass the governing party. Unexplained decisions have denied the public information such as the 70 year ban on information from the inquiry into the death of Iraq weapons inspector Dr David Kelly. Likewise, large corporations and businesses have sought to use legal action or the threat of it to prevent disclosure of information that should undoubtedly be made public. But, in the name of personal privacy, the other side of an increasingly one-sided coin, surely there has to be a limit to what can be placed in the public domain about people's private lives? There is a big difference between the public interest and what the media tell the public it is interested in (which rarely includes the genuine transgressions of the truly powerful).

A Lib Dem MP declaring in the Commons that a footballer has had an affair does not seem to me like a particularly valid or worthwhile use of the important right of Parliamentary privilege. Whose business are Ryan Giggs' sleeping habits but his own and his wife's? So he is in the public eye because he kicks a ball up and down a pitch; but why does that lay his personal life open to intimate examination? Doubtless, some screamingly hypocritical tabloid journalists have already penned screeds of stuff about how he is an example to young people and have squashed it in between a pile of articles about the best sexual positions and which pop singer's blouse came undone at an awards ceremony. But Giggs and other celebrities are famous because they sing or play sports or act or whatever. They don't make public policy, they don't spend our money, they don't run our schools. So why are their private lives not to be respected?

The retort to that might be that only the rich and famous can afford super-injunctions, disadvantaging less well off people. And true that is. The law should be more accessible and rather than anyone having to rely on injunctions, there should be a proper law of privacy, applicable to all. Far too often, 24 hour news media and tabloid journalism (and sometimes serious journalism too) revel in the sensationalism of people's private grief - divorces, illnesses, affairs, whatever. Celebrities are the main target, but less well known people can equally find themselves dragged through the mud for no reason other than selling papers, as was the case last Christmas of the entirely innocent landlord of a murder victim in Bristol.

There can be times when there is some justification - mainly politicians who perhaps preach family values and decry adultery in public while siring second families behind their partners' backs. Or MPs who rail about transparency and honesty while covering up their leader's alcohol problem for years before ratting on him as if they never knew about it.

The only bodies with a genuine interest in doing away with the injunctions and stopping any new privacy law are the media, especially the tabloids. With titles like "The Sun", "The Daily Star" and a host of magazines existing on a constant diet of other people's misery, being able to get their hands on the private lives of anyone even remotely well known is key to their profits. Now, with reality TV (often owned and promoted by the same people who own the newspapers and magazines) they create new stars famous for nothing but being famous, and then drag them through all sorts of publicity scandals - drugs, fights, sex, sickness. Like the parasites they are, they live off their victims before finally discarding them when their brief celebrity is sucked dry and their lives often ruined.

So the MP who claimed today that revealing Giggs was in the public interest should take a long hard look at himself. Perhaps he wanted to make a point about the legal system, perhaps he just wanted to make some headlines for himself - not unlikely given his party's currently dismal standing. But perhaps he might want to ask himself, however much this was already Britain's worst kept secret, will Stacey Cooke, Giggs' wife, be thanking the MP tonight? Is the personal pain and humiliation he has added to what must already be an incredibly difficult time for her and her family worth getting his little known name and face in the news today?

Or should he just have kept his self-serving trap shut?

BELOW: "A Culture of Fear", a powerful video about the impact of the sensationalist media in its many damaging ways. Click through to Youtube for more on this.

1 comment:

  1. How about; an independent body where anyone can apply to have stories about them kept out of the public gaze, free at the point of contact so that it's not just for the rich; coupled with a duty on the media to inform the subject of a story before they publish, to enable them to apply to the independent body.
    The independent body would decide whether the story was in the public interest, or merely a prurient, paper-selling intrusion into a private life, in which the public may or may not be interested.