Privacy concerns should not be used as excuse to bash press
21 Jun 11

Celebrity, tawdriness and free speech — the issues surrounding privacy create a perfect storm for those worried about the standards of our tabloid press on the one hand and a secretive state on the other. For advocates of free expression, led by Index on Censorship, the row over privacy and injunctions has proved testing. But it need not be.

I’ve debated the issue several times since the spate of super-injunctions, or more precisely anonymised injunctions, hit the headlines. Critics suggest that the media seized on the issue more out of financial self-interest than principle. They are probably correct in their analysis of the motive, but that does not render the argument redundant.

In my various debates on radio and TV — often jousting with Max Mosley — I sought to differentiate between the right to privacy and the right to secrecy. I did so in a longer lead piece in Media Guardian a month ago.

It is surely right, both under the terms of Article 8 and in any understanding of natural justice, for an individual to enjoy a private life. What is so dispiriting about the phone hacking affair is how most of the media even now doggedly refuse to report it and how the Metropolitan Police was unwilling to investigate it first time around.

So far so easy: we can all, or perhaps most of us, agree on the right to a straightforward injunction to prevent publication of information that is not in the public interest. But, in the spirit of an open society, I can see very few reasons why the fact of the injunction and the name of the person taking out that injunction should not be known.

These issues and more are discussed in the forthcoming issue of Index magazine — a special devoted to privacy. The quality of the contributions is excellent. The magazine will be launched on Tuesday June 28 in a debate at the LSE involving the lawyers on both sides of the Ryan Giggs episode — Hugh Tomlinson and David Price — plus journalist Suzanne Moore and, naturally, Mosley, whose attempt to secure “prior notification” Index opposed at the European Court on Strasbourg.

This Wednesday I’ll be one of the “witnesses” before the privacy commission run by BBC Radio 4’s PM programme. I follow in the footsteps of the likes of Hugh Grant, Zac Goldsmith — and, yes Mosley again.
In coming months a joint committee of the Commons and Lords will take a longer look at the issue. Some say politicians should not get involved. I don’t see why. This issue has now become so highly charged that fresh guidance is needed. What exactly constitutes privacy? Who is entitled to it? And how do we define the public interest?

It is vital to enforce the right to legitimate privacy. What worries me, however, is that the debate appears to have become in some quarters a proxy not just to bash tabloid skulduggery, but to talk about a media more generally “out of control”. This is taking places at a time when investigative journalism is on the wane (mainly for economic reasons), and where it has never been harder to eke out information from those with power. If our judges had a stronger track record in defending free speech, I would have fewer qualms about their current obsession with privacy.