Those of you who read the tabloids – and most of you who don’t – will probably have been made aware of a debate that is going on in Britain over the use of so-called “super-injunctions” in which judges acting on whatever criteria take their fancy can rule not only that something (usually true) cannot be published, but also that the fact that they have ordered its suppression may itself not be mentioned. A lesser version of this is that it can be reported that they have suppressed something but not who asked them to suppress it. In one recent case they even ruled that indirect information that might identify the man, like saying that he was a leading banker (no that’s not rhyming slang) could not be published.
Now personally I think that the private life of that “leading banker” was of rather less public interest than the known fact that he had taken several hundreds of thousand pounds of taxpayers money to which he was not entitled in a pension settlement in return for resigning from the bank that he had led to the brink of bankruptcy because of his arrogance, greed and total lack of business acumen. Indeed the “leading banker” in question – Sir Fred Goodwin – was and is such an incompetent businessman that he isn’t fit to be in charge of a hot dog stall, let alone a bank. And any bank that hires him is putting depositors and investors money at risk.
The pension that he received would not have been possible if the bank that he mismanaged to the point of near bankruptcy had not been bailed out with money expropriated from the taxpayer (on pain of imprisonment). Thus the taxpayer was mugged and some of the ill-gotten gains found their way into Sir Fred’s pocket, with the connivance of the bank’s directors and the government. It is this and not his alleged sexual activities that is of genuine and legitimate public interest.
The matter has resurfaced in the past week or so with news that a footballer who can’t be named had obtained a super-injunction and was also in dispute with Twitter over disclosure of the matter on their website. The problem is of course that the world-wide web is just that – worldwide – whereas injunctions by the courts in England and Wales don’t even extent as far as Scotland let alone across the Atlantic. And in the United States, it is virtually impossible to get an injunction (or “gagging order”) as they call it, except in criminal cases. Thus it is virtually impossible to suppress information from the internet.
Now speaking for myself, I am not interested in the sex lives of footballers, golfers, bankers or even politicians. (I won’t mention editors and journalists because we rarely get to hear about their sex lives, for some reason.) But I would like to take the argument even one stage further and say that there is no simple answer to the question of where the right to public’s right to know ends and the right to privacy begins – or should that be the other way round?
For example, should the right to know apply only to sexual infidelity or should the quality of some one’s sexual performance also be fair game for the tabloids if one of the parties wishes to report it? is “My ex has a small willy” be a legitimate subject for the tabloids? Some would say that the answer is it depends on whether the ex-partner is a public figure. But this isn’t really helpful because then it begs the question, how public is public? Does it refer to fame? Or holding public office? Or receiving money from the public coffers?
A politician – as in one who holds public office? What about one who used to? What about a candidate? What about a former candidate who has since abandoned his or her political ambitions? A footballer? Only the Premier league? or also the Conference league? Or one of the local leagues? Perhaps one might say that a footballer in a local league is off-limits to this sort of tabloid intrusion. But what if the newspaper that reports the activity is also local? Does not a local newspaper have the same rights to report on the sexual proclivities of a local footballer as a national newspaper to report the bedroom activities of a premier league hot shot – or at least a footballer who thinks he’s a hotshot?
And of course the same could be said about a singer or actor? Not all people in the entertainment industry are household names. Is it only the nationally recognized figures whom the public may be said to own a piece of? What about a semi-pro who performs in local clubs or in a minor repertory company? Are their sex lives legitimate material for at least the local papers?
Of course one might say that the test is whether they receive money out of the public coffers. But a local theatre company funded by a grant from the arts council falls into precisely that category. And what about a civil servant? I am not talking about some smooth-talking “Sir Humphrey” in a rosewood-paneled office in Whitehall. I am talking about some low-paid functionary in a regional jobcentre trying to help people find employment? Or a teacher at a state-funded school? Are all of these people fair game?
And what about some one who becomes a “public figure” involuntarily such as a person accused of a crime, but subsequently cleared? I am thinking in particular of Colin Stagg who was falsely accused of murder and who endured years of hounding by the tabloids – including a sting by a paid prostitute with the collusion of one of the leading red-top tabloids. Was he fair game because his name had been launched into the public arena by an accusation that had already been proven false? Was he too a “public figure” though he never chose to be?
I am not arguing for the gagging of the press. But the simplistic belief that there is no right to privacy and an unlimited public “right to know” is singularly unhelpful. Perhaps the tragedy is that many people care more about what footballers do in the bedroom that with what politicians do with our money and what they do with the lives of young men who have signed on to defend the country for a pittance that is dwarfed by what footballers are paid for their inept attempts to win international competitions.
But then again, maybe I am out of tune of tune with the national ethos. I am one of those 14% of the people who supported the AV voting system – not the 28% who opposed it or the 58% who were too lazy to get off their backsides and state their preference. And I am one of those people who thinks that Tiger Woods’ sex life is of no interest to anyone but Tiger Woods, Mrs Woods and however many floozies it actually was.