Nov 10 2008

Dacre is right on privacy (even where he is wrong)

dacre460.jpgThe Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has argued in a speech to the Society of Editors that the judges are using the Human Rights Act to limit journalists’ ability to report on ‘private’ issues such as Max Mosley’s prediliction for uniforms and spanking.

It is an excellent and entertaining speech that ranges widely across his career, the nature of journalism, and the legal problems faced by popular newspapers such as the Mail.

His particular focus is on Justice David Eady who has been hearing some crucial cases on privacy. Dacre argues that Eady is effectively bringing in a privacy law via his interpretations of the Human Rights Act. Dacre says this is replacing a moral judgement with a rights-based one in the case of Max Mosley:

Recently, of course, the very same Justice Eady effectively ruled that it’s perfectly acceptable for the multi-millionaire head of a multi-billion sport that is followed by countless young people to pay five women £2,500 to take part in acts of unimaginable sexual depravity with him.

“The judge found for Max Mosley because he had not engaged in a “sick Nazi orgy” as the News of the World contested, though for the life of me that seems an almost surreally pedantic logic as some of the participants were dressed in military-style uniform.  Mosley was issuing commands in German while one prostitute pretended to pick lice from his hair, a second fellated him and a third caned his backside until blood was drawn.  Now most people would consider such activities to be perverted, depraved,  the very abrogation of civilised behaviour of which the law is supposed to be the safeguard.  Not Justice Eady.  To him such behaviour was merely unconventional”.

I think that in this instance Dacre is wrong. Many people do not think S&M is depraved. But he is right that immorality should be admitted to be a legitimate basis for a story. But in the end you will always need a judge to rule upon the subjective view of a particular case.

I also think that Dacre has a point about the way that this issue is being dealt with. You should either have a privacy law or not. At the moment we have one creeping in without proper consideration. It’s certainly not good enough to say that ‘it will all come out on the Internet anyway”. Firstly, not everything does come out on the Internet. Secondly, the Internet should not be above ethical scrutiny either. Thirdly, why should newspapers be more restricted than a blog or a website?

There are ways that  you can delineate privacy. Children should be protected from publicity. Your own home and holiday should be privileged spaces. But there will always be exceptions which is why judges will always be involved. Where I agree with Dacre is that Eady appears to be showing too much sympathy for the rights of wealthy celebs. He is not balancing that with the fact that those who make their living out of their public personae can’t always use the right to privacy as a way of keeping unsavoury aspects of their lives out of the media.

I also agree with him that there needs to be a proper public debate. Government doesn’t want to be seen either to be limiting media freedom or failing to protect the citizen’s right to privacy.  But the fact that one judge seems to be making all the law on this is surely not the way to proceed.

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4 Responses to Dacre is right on privacy (even where he is wrong)

  1. Nigel Barlow says:

    I think that the message from Paul Dacre is getting confused.

    Let’s seperater out the law issue first.English law has evolved over the centuries based to a large extent on the precedent and interpretation of the judges.
    I think that it is unfortuntate that Lord Eady has on a number of occassions come down seemingly on the side of the wealthy celeb,but lets not detract from this being a suitable way of dealing with points of law.

    It would be better if a Privacy law was dealt with by statute,with clear guidelines drawing the boundries between what is permissable and what isn’t in terms of intrusion.

    What I felt was wrong with Dacre’s speech was that it seems that he feels that celebratory=intrusion and that the public have a right to know all the goings on of a public figure regardless of the public interest criteria

  2. Public interest is what matters here. There was none in Mosley’s case. It might have been different if the alleged Nazi aspect had indeed existed or if Mosley had been found to be paying his professional dominatrixes out of F1 funds. But neither was the case. It was a purely private activity. If Dacre and co want to see an end to privacy rulings made on a case by case basis they can do this: firstly stop confusing public interest with the interest of the public and secondly stop running salacious stories that by definition are going to trigger legal action. Easy’s rulings will not, in any case, prevent legitimate investigative journalism, only sleazy invasions of privacy.

  3. John W says:

    Where I think Dacre was wrong was in hitting out at a particular judge. Surely all Judge’s are paid to interpret the law? If the law allows too wide a variance in interpretation, then the law is at fault, not the judge.

    What worries me more in this wider debate is the suggestion that without the ability to publish ‘invasive’ stories, newspapers’ circulations will drop to such an extent that some will go to the wall. Quite possibly this is true – but if so, so be it. You can’t open up matters that are genuinely private to press scrutiny just to save newspapers from going bust.

  4. Off with Charlie’s head! And Dacre’s too.

    John W got it right when he remarks that we shouldn’t think of an individual judge making law. He doesn’t. Not even courts do, though that’s closer to the thing. Parliament is the father of the Human Rights Act as it is of all law, finally.

    Charlie and Dacre are on thin ground when they argue that morality is being replaced by rights law. The whole point is that rights law is intended to capture the necessary balances between opposing views of morality.

    It is, as Charlie remarks, great fun to hear an editor defend salacious stories on the mutually-exclusive grounds that only by being shabby – and moralising about shabby stories – can populist papers stay afloat to do their invaluable work.

    I am thrilled that Mosley has got away with it, especially in keeping his public role. The ideal solution to all these issues is: “Publish and be damned!”. Sentences in which the words “adult”, “consensual”, and “didn’t frighten the horses” all appear can seldom be truly scandalous.

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