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Thursday, April 21, 2011 

Playing the victim in the privacy wars.

Whenever the tabloids start to play the victim, it ought to be apparent that there's something far more vital at stake than the freedom of the press: that other enduring freedom, to make money out of the misery of other people. If you've been cynical enough to think there might be something else afoot that's encouraged the so-called popular press to spend much of this week complaining bitterly about how they're not being allowed to continue to focus on shag 'n' tell journalism to the detriment of everything else, then you'd be right. Even if the phone-hacking scandal hasn't (yet) touched any other newspaper than the ever egregious News of the Screws, they know full well that the longer it rumbles on the more likely the same celebrities and politicos now demanding recompense from Murdoch's minions will turn their attention onto them. Why else after all would they have done so much to either ignore or play down the NotW's sad troubles with the Metropolitan police if they didn't themselves know there would be be similar discoveries if their own email records were exposed to the same intimate attention? It certainly isn't the old Fleet Street spirit of solidarity, of dog not eating dog, which has always been something of a myth.

Anything then to deflect from how so much of tabloid journalism is currently under scrutiny. Politically wise or not, considering the potential for revenge to be taken in the most damaging of ways, Ed Miliband's call for an independent review of the Press Complaints Commission and newspaper practices once the police investigation into the Screws has finished was both brave and welcome. It must have also been alarming to tabloid editors and their owners, not so much because they fear such an inquiry taking place, something doubtful to happen when the levels of mutual sycophancy between themselves and David Cameron are still high, more because it's a sign of just how precarious their craft is becoming that any front line politician feels bold enough to call for something they would have usually not touched with the proverbial ten-foot barge pole.

The resurrection of the issue of super-injunctions for mostly specious reasons should be reasonably apparent due to how the cases the tabloids are complaining about are err, not super-injunctions, otherwise they wouldn't be able to complain about them at all, as they're meant to ban the press from even mentioning they've been gagged. Instead the courts have recently favoured the slightly subtler form of injunction which allows the media to make clear that they've been stopped from printing a story, and even to go into some of the relevant details which could potentially identify those involved. Hence we know a married footballer has stopped the press from splashing on his affair with the fragrant Imogen Thomas, a former Big Brother contestant who's made her living since appearing on the show by exposing her plastic breasts for money, while a "world famous" actor who paid for some sort of sexual activity with the equally lovely Helen Wood, an escort universally known in the gutter press as ROONEY TART/HOOKER for her past dalliance with the Manchester United striker has also been saved from the ignominy of having his poor taste in sex workers revealed.

Justifications for informing the world that famous people tend to be just as human as the rest of us range from the moralistic, such as Paul Dacre's notable attack on Mr Justice Eady for stopping newspapers reporting on the "unimaginable depravity" of the likes of Max Mosley, to how it enables superstars to continue to present themselves as role models to the young while profiting from it through marketing deals, all the way along to the usual press freedom arguments. Others still are now pointing to how unfair it is on the women involved that they can't either protect themselves or sell their stories, as if the likes of Imogen Thomas or Wood are somehow damaged further having usually informed the media in the first place. Excepting Wood, it also ignores their own responsibility for involvement in the affair, even if their identities don't always stay hidden. In a recent case the News of the World had intended to claim that a television presenter had been sacked after the fellow host she had conducted an affair with had requested the break up of their partnership, only for her to support the seeking of the injunction.

It would be much easier to respect the principle of "publish and be damned" if the stories the media does manage to get into the papers were reported accurately. Not content with the already sensational likes of Mosley conducting spanking sessions with dominatrices, the Screws had to sex it up further (arguably to give it something resembling a public interest defence) to Mosley having a Nazi orgy. The John Terry saga of last year took on a rather different air when the quietly determined Vanessa Perroncel managed to extract apologies from both Sunday newspapers involved, more than suggesting that the claims of an affair between the two were inaccurate. Terry has since been restored to the England captaincy, the role he lost after the tabloids called for him to lose it following his "infidelity".

This isn't to suggest there aren't potential problems ahead should the law be more contentiously interpreted by judges. A judgement published yesterday by Justice Eady seems to go a step further than anything so far: in a case he describes as an example of "straightforward and blatant blackmail", he imposed a contra mundum injunction, forbidding not just the national but worldwide media from identifying those involved. These have only formerly been issued in cases where those seeking them were not just at risk of having their right to privacy under the European Convention of Human Rights breached, but their article 2 and 3 rights also; John Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger had their new identities protected in such a way, as did Mary Bell. Regardless of the solid medical evidence suggesting the health, including the mental health of those involved has been affected, this could well be a step too far: it's one thing to protect those who have committed terrible crimes as children from being hounded for the rest of their lives or even killed by banning the publication of their whereabouts and names; it's quite another to do so over a case which involves "intimate photographs and other information". Moreover, it's bound to lay down the gauntlet to media outlets overseas who've graciously respected the past rulings who will be far less likely to do so when the stakes are nowhere near as high; and after all, what exactly can they be threatened with which might make them think twice before doing so?

Despite David Cameron today voicing his "unease" over the recent injunctions, it's still manifest that judges are not making the law, merely interpreting it as best they can and following rulings
which have set precedents, usually delivered either by the highest court here or by the ECHR. It's also clear that politicians still seem unlikely to be willing to get involved in something which will mean them rather than judges deciding on how to balance the competing rights of privacy and freedom of the press, whether or not they have the tabloids screaming at them to do something or not: in this instance there seems to be too much to lose either way. Having spent so long complaining about vested interests and their role in British life, it's would be nice if the tabloids recognised theirs in preferring exposure over privacy. It's only when it comes to their own newsrooms that they opt for the latter.

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