Press freedom was the talk of the tabloids last month, mainly because a judge has put a stop (albeit probably only temporarily) to their lascivious kiss and tell stories.
It started when a premier league footballer took out an injunction against The Sunday People preventing the paper from running an exposé of his extra-marital sexual shenanigans.
The story was provided – for a price, of course – by two young ladies with whom the footballer had been enjoying sexual congress over an extended period.
Naturally The Sunday People was up in arms about the injunction, or ‘gagging order’ as they called it. How dare a judge take it upon himself to restrict free speech and freedom of the press in this way? If this judgement had been in effect during the Profumo era, it said, the public would never have known about it. The public has a right to know, the editor of the Peephole insisted.
But a right to know what, exactly?
The court ruling that has caused so much consternation in Fleet Street says that under the terms of the Human Rights Act everyone has a right to privacy. It implies that anyone who enters into a sexual relationship has a duty of confidentiality to the other party, similar to that of an employee and employer. The judge said that the law should protect that confidentiality within and outside marriage, subject to individual circumstances. That last clause does seem to indicate that if there is a genuine public interest to be served by revealing the details of people’s sex lives, then newspapers would have the go ahead to do it.
But what public interest is served by our knowing about a footballer and his mistresses? What interest is served by our knowing that he failed to wear a condom during his sex sessions or how many times they did it or in what position or whether he was wearing socks at the time?
The only interest I can see here is the interest of The Sunday People – and, of course, a salivating public who seem to gain some kind of reassurance by being able to snigger and finger-wag at other people’s peccadilloes.
Fantastic claims that the freedom of the press has been fatally compromised are ridiculous. As Marcel Berlins, the legal correspondent at The Guardian, said: “It’s total nonsense to say that the media would not have been able to reveal John Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler. The Judge in this case made it clear that each case should be scrutinised to see whether there was an over-riding public interest in publishing. It is patently absurd to suggest to argue that there would have been no public interest in disclosing that the minister for war was sleeping with a woman who was sleeping with a Russian naval attaché. What the judge decided was that in the footballer’s case, there could be no conceivable public interest reason for publicising his tacky amorous adventures.”
No one in the press has mentioned the cruelty and suffering that is caused by these kiss and tell stories. Some time ago there was a craze for paying rent boys to dish the dirt on any famous gay punters they might have had, and the consequence was that innocent people were publicly humiliated and sometimes their lives were totally destroyed – in the case of Russell Harty, literally so.
And what happens when they get it wrong? Premier kiss and tell merchant, The News of the World (whose sobriquet News of the Screws is well deserved), recently did the business on EastEnders actor Dean Gaffney in June. The details of a supposed night of passion with a woman were luridly splashed over two pages. The paper went into immense detail about what the two had been up to. Then on 11 November, tucked away in small print on page 23, came an apology: “Mr Gaffney has complained that this article was untrue and we now accept that [the woman’s] account was wholly fictitious. We apologise to Mr Gaffney and his family for any distress and embarrassment that may have been caused.”
Oh, so that’s all right then. Hopefully Dean Gaffney received a suitably substantial pay-off from the paper, but that does not alleviate the terrible indignity he must have suffered over the weekend of publication.
How many others will have to put up with similar horrors? Can you imagine having your mother reading about every jot and tittle of your sexual life in a paper over her toast and marmalade? Hopefully, for as long as this judgement stands, some at least will be spared.
The ruling, welcome as it is, is unlikely to survive the appeals process, though. And as soon as it is overturned, the Sunday red tops will carry on as before.
What we really need is for the Government to come up with some proper regulatory framework that would compel the newspapers to stop paying women (and, occasionally, men) for stories of sexual exploits that concern no one but the people involved. After all, the two women who sold their stories of sex with a footballer could quite as easily have been called to account for their own lack of morals. It takes two to commit adultery, after all. When you consider that they were quite happy to continue the affair even after they knew that the man was married with children, they have nothing to be self-righteous about. If it suited the tabloids, they would have been on the front page themselves labelled marriage-wreckers.
The Human Rights Act says that any relevant code of conduct must be taken into account when forming judgements. In this instance it was the code of the Press Complaints Commission. The judge interpreted it to the letter, and when it says that people are entitled to privacy, he assumed that is what it meant. Which is more than Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the PCC, has ever done.
The Press Complaints Commission is inadequate for the job of protecting the public from an irresponsible press – or, as Libby Purves in The Times wrote: “I had always naively thought that the PCC was created to deal with complaints against newspapers, not from them”. We need proper, legal protection, something that successive Governments have been loath to provide, mainly because they are scared witless by the vengeful nature of the press.
A much more serious case followed, when The Mail on Sunday had an injunction taken out against it by an HIV positive health worker. The paper had wanted to report the case – which would have inevitably led to the man being named – because of what it said was the right of the patients he had treated to be told the facts.
It’s a complicated case, and involves other issues to do with the Data Protection Act, but the bottom line is that this man does not want his patients informed of his HIV status.
Patient groups say that they should be told, even though the chances of them being infected are so small that they can be discounted. If it were possible to do it discreetly and privately, then there might – just might – be some logic in it.
But, once again, we have the newspapers fighting for the right to persecute someone simply because they don’t understand the issues. This is a much more serious case than the kiss and tell judgment, and there is definitely a public interest element involved here. But the fact is that in the past twenty years there have been only two cases of a patient being infected by an HIV positive health worker in the whole world, and both of them were avoidable if people had behaved responsibly.
If proper hygiene procedures are followed – and there is no reason to suspect that they weren’t in this latest case – the risk to the patient hardly exists.
The consequence of calling in all the tens of thousands of people this man has treated over the years is simply to create a terrible amount of unnecessary distress and panic.
I can understand the newspapers wanting to ensure that everyone has all the information they need to keep themselves safe, but in the case of HIV infected health workers there really is no need. As soon as it is known that someone working within the health services is HIV positive, they should be removed from duties that could, potentially, result in them being able to pass on the virus (perhaps through invasive surgery).
Unlike the footballer and the floozy, this issue is not so clear-cut. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that there is no need for newspapers to be involved in the exposing of health workers with HIV. It helps no one, frightens everyone and simply reinforces misinformation about the nature of HIV transmission.
The health service has the necessary procedures in place to deal with the issue, and nothing can be gained from dragging individuals – who have probably devoted their lives to the practice of medicine – through the newspapers like some kind of malevolent monsters out to infect innocent, trusting victims. For whatever the editor of The Mail on Sunday says, that’s how it will look in cold print.