Daily Mail outrage as injunctions prevent public pillory 
Brian Cathcart: Daily Mail outrage as injunctions prevent public pillory 
21 Apr 11

The Daily Mail are angry about injunctions issued by “amoral judges” to protect “celebrity secrets”. Developments in court have been reported on the Daily Mail’s front page on successive days, while inside the paper Stephen Glover has argued that a series of rulings have left Britain “not many steps away from a police state”.

The people behind these injunctions, who tend to be identified by letter codes, appear to be a banker, an actor, a couple of television personalities and several professional footballers. They have had affairs while married, or have paid prostitutes for sex, and I think in one case there is a child born out of wedlock. The injunctions are keeping these stories, and the identities of those involved, out of the Mail and other papers.

Here is a general observation: other people’s sex lives are not my business. I may find the stories interesting and I might gossip about them, but I don’t believe I have a right to know about them. On the contrary, I think people should be allowed to keep such things private.

The Mail calls these people “wrongdoers” and “miscreants” and says they are “shameless”. This is probably a minority view. Adultery and divorce are common and — even if it is only through television documentaries or dramas — most of us have some idea that these things are complex and painful. Name-calling and crude blame have fallen from favour. Paying for sex also seems common. Again, the Mail clearly thinks it is wrong, full stop, but the law has long taken the view that, as with adultery, it should generally be regarded as a matter between consenting adults.

The Mail is obviously entitled to express its distaste for adultery and prostitution, but disapproving of something doesn’t automatically confer a right to breach the privacy of people who do it. If the paper could show that exposure was in the public interest, then perhaps. Are any of these people engaged in public moral judgement, telling others how to behave? I don’t know, but that might be an argument. Can any of these people be shown to have failed in some public duty as a result of their relationships? That too might be an argument.

Glover tells us the footballers are role models. In other words, because they play football for high salaries, these people can have no privacy in the bedroom. By extension, then, they have no entitlement to privacy at all; their entire lives — money matters, friendships, families, pastimes, tastes, opinions, holidays — are public property, to be scrutinised at any time to ensure they always set a good example. That is a difficult case to sustain.

Other people are involved in these stories and it is clear that in some cases they don’t want privacy; they want to tell their stories. That certainly complicates matters and it is hard to see an alternative to involving judges, since no privacy law is ever going to lay down rules that cover every eventuality. If judges feel the need for elaborate rulings, as the Mail complains, my guess is that this is often because they know the elaborate lengths to which newspapers will go to subvert them.

Which brings us to what is in it for newspapers. Partly, of course, (mainly, I would suggest) they want these stories because sexual scandal sells. That is why they will devote page after page to the detail of activities they claim to deprecate.

But the Mail argues on a higher plane. It says the sex lives of errant footballers and television presenters need to be exposed as a warning to the rest of us. As Glover put it: “The point is that fear of shame or disgrace acts as a restraint on all sorts of wrongdoing.”

This is the newspaper wishing to act as a public pillory in matters of sexual morality. To put it another way, the Mail wants the right to hang the scarlet letter “A” around the necks of those it considers adulterers because, it says, this will deter others from straying.

Glover’s boss, editor Paul Dacre, made the same case more fully in a speech in 2008, mainly with reference to the Max Mosley case.

Since time immemorial public shaming has been a vital element in defending the parameters of what are considered acceptable standards of social behaviour, helping ensure that citizens — rich and poor –– adhere to them for the good of the greater community. For hundreds of years, the press has played a role in that process. It has the freedom to identify those who have offended public standards of decency – the very standards its readers believe in – and hold the transgressors up to public condemnation. If their readers don’t agree with the defence of such values, they would not buy those papers in such huge numbers.

What do you think of that?

Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and tweets at @BrianCathcart