How tabloids are letting sex get in the way of a good story
Published 23/06/2011 | 08:00
Why do we hate famous people so much? No, truly, we must do. Otherwise we'd treat them with the same compassion that we afford to friends, neighbours and blamelessly ordinary people.
Instead, we behave as if, once they've made a couple of successful films, they forfeit their human rights.
The Human Rights Act is supposed to give us all 'the right to respect for our private and family life, our home and our correspondence'. Some newspapers act as if this law had never been passed.
Every day, they are full of salacious stories and photographs of so-called celebrities, some of which represent a gross and gratuitous invasion into their privacy.
I say 'so-called' because there is a difference between those who are famous merely for being famous and those who are celebrated because they have talent in a particular field.
The former - the likes of Katie Price - would wilt without the camera lens on them. They love the fame and the ker-ching of paparazzi shutters just. But it's the ones with talent I worry about.
Hugh Grant, the film actor, bravely spent 15 minutes on Radio 4's PM programme last week defending the right for people like him to retain a smidgen of a private life.
Recently, The Sun wrote about his being admitted to hospital. It had a list of his symptoms, suggesting that the informant wasn't a member of the public waiting in A-amp;E, but a member of the hospital staff.
How hateful it must be - when you are at your most vulnerable - to have to feel suspicious about the nurse or doctor who is treating you. What possible public interest can there be in revealing that most private of information? What has Grant done to deserve it? And what redress does he have?
There are, of course, injunctions. Sometimes these are misused, but an injunction defending an individual's privacy, when publication could have no conceivable public-interest defence, is surely justifiable.
However, injunctions are not just hideously expensive and beyond the reach of most people; they also rely on the victim knowing in advance that a newspaper plans a breach of privacy.
Was Grant expected to take out an injunction before being rushed to hospital? Max Mosley couldn't get an injunction before the News of the World published photos and videos of him indulging in an orgy because he had no idea the story was going to run.
In the end, Mosley won £60,000 damages plus costs from the News of the World, but not before his reputation had been irreversibly trashed and his life ruined.
The tabloids rely on their victims not being rich or determined enough to go down the Mosley route. They know that the Press Complaints Commission is pretty toothless.
At the moment, there is a race to the bottom among the mass-market Press. No paper wants to be scooped by a rival and they all know that prurient photos and stories win readers. In the past, they resorted to illegal methods, such as phone-hacking or bugging, to get exclusives. Even if those practices have stopped, they still act in blatant breach of the PCC's Code of Conduct and the Human Rights Act.
There has to be a better way. Newspapers are deterred from printing defamatory stories by the law of libel. In-house lawyers scour articles for defamatory allegations before they are printed.
If the price of gratuitously invading people's privacy were as high as the price of defaming them, editors would be much more careful about what they printed.
It may be that the PCC should be given the power to levy serious fines for breach of its code. Or it may be that a proper privacy law should be brought in that gives victims a chance of redress at a cost that isn't astronomical.
Newspapers should be allowed a public-interest defence so that the rich and the powerful aren't allowed to hide important secrets.
And they should be able to argue that celebrities who assiduously court publicity have forfeited their right to privacy.
Editors will protest about the loss of free speech. What they really fear is that it will undermine their business model. But reports based on privacy invasion are lazy journalism.
If the playing field were raised so that none of the papers was allowed to depend on intrusion, they would have to compete instead by telling real news in an entertaining way and campaigning on behalf of their readers.
That's how papers used to thrive. There's no reason why they shouldn't do so again.