Belfast Telegraph

Sammy Wilson naked photos: Do we need the naked truth about public figures?

Private concerns on matters of morality

When Jim McDowell, Northern Editor of Sunday World, was presented with photographs of a naked Sammy Wilson and a lady friend, he had only one concern.

Would it be legally safe to publish the pictures? There was no moral question to be answered. No heart or soul searching on any ethical obligation towards the people involved. What he had in his hands was not a man's reputation nor his public image, but the bread and butter of a Sunday tabloid newspaper.

This is not meant as a criticism of the Sunday World, but the simple truth that these newspapers are a part of the entertainment industry and not the information industry.

When the tabloids do have to inform their readers, they do it in the way the reader expects, sensationally, surprisingly, shockingly or more politely, extravagantly.

Like all newspapers they are in business to make money and they do this by attracting the largest possible number of readers of the type who want scandal and gossip. They give their readers what their readers expect to get.

But that does not make what they do right.

Journalists, by the very nature of their job, see everything in terms of news or "stories". It very often _ too often _ blinds them to the fact that newspapers can inflict great hurt on individuals; too often it means they overstep the boundary between what is in the public interest and what is fair; too often they treat the right of privacy of the individual as something which applies to themselves but to no one else.

I would not have used Sammy Wilson's pictures when I was news editor of the Belfast Telegraphy. Not simply because they would have been inappropriate for this newspaper (which traditionally has been read by all members of a family, including the young).

I would not have used them because they were the property of Sammy Wilson and he was not giving permission for them to be used; because they were a shocking infringement of his right as an individual to have a private life away from the glare of embarrassing publicity, a right which all of us, including newspaper men, guard jealously.

And I would not have used them because even though he may be a figure in the public frame, the photographs could not in any sense be said to be in the public interest, other than saliciously.

To be in that public interest, the activities of the person would have to have had a direct effect, and adversely at that, on members of the public, or to cast doubts on his ability to carry out public duties.

The fact that information, in this case photographs, even though they may be embarrassing to him and distasteful to many, is suddenly thrust into the public domain, does not in itself detract from the capability of the person to carry out his public functions in an efficient way.

It is true to say that the majority of British MPs who have been in trouble over having affairs outside marriage, were judged solely on moral standards and the damage they had done to their families, while leaving the general public they served unaffected.

Sammy Wilson is the victim, not of any actions on his part, but of a Sunday tabloid newspaper which was presented with an opportunity and decided he was well enough known to have his privacy violated.

It is interesting to note that on a radio programme, the paper's Northern editor made no attempt to plead public interest for publishing the pictures, claiming instead that while the subject matter was well known, the whole thing was meant as "a bit of fun".

There is a worrying message here for all those who have been gloating over Sammy Wilson's discomfort. The whole point in deploring the invasion of privacy by newspapers as I deplore it, is not just to protect the rich, the famous, the politicians. It is to protect everyone.

While we may believe that the Press has the right to pry into the private lives of the famous, the moment we condone that right then we give our consent to them intruding into our own privacy.

What they can do to the public figures they can do to the ordinary man and woman, and I know after a lifetime in newspapers that if the "story" is juicy enough, it will matter not that the victim is of no public importance.

This of course, should not worry those people who have no skeltons to hide, indeed no cupboards to hide them in. All the rest are vulnerable.

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