Sir Paul McCartny is calling for a privacy law in the wake of the phone hacking scandal. I suppose we have to give him credit for honesty. So far the various witnesses to the Leveson inquiry have refrained from being so open.
I’ve commented on this at some length over at my own blog and I am no champion of the press. Their unethical behaviour is coming home to roost. While they squeal about press freedom, they have brought such calls upon themselves. Press freedom goes hand in hand with the responsibility to publish stories that are in the public interest. It is not, nor ever was, in the public interest to embellish or outright lie in order to make a front page. Nor was it in the public interest to vilify a suspect in a murder case, placing themselves in contempt of court and undermining any potential trial. As it was, the suspect in question was released without charge and another was convicted of the murder. The damage, however, was done.
Part of that damage is to the profession itself. If not for their behaviour, calls for privacy laws would largely go unnoticed. After all, celebrities court the media, so they sacrifice a degree of privacy. That attitude is now undermined. And understandably so. Courting the media for the purposes of one’s professional work – be it acting, singing or politics – does not automatically imply that life outside of this arena is fair game. Only if it is in the public interest can it be justified. As Max Mosely demonstrated with his successful court case, the News of the World did not differentiate between public interest and interesting to the public. I’m sure there were plenty of folk of a Sunday morning who found the lurid details of his S&M party interesting. Interesting, maybe, but none of their business and just because his role was in the public eye, it doesn’t follow that his sexual preferences should be. They had no bearing on his professional activities and that he was doing it behind his wife’s back had no bearing either. He wasn’t moralising about family values, after all. If he had been, well, different matter – public interest comes into play.
While the discussion over at mine tended to be in favour of an unfettered press as being the least worst option, I remain convinced that a replacement of the PCC with enough teeth to protect the innocent from press intrusion is a compromise approach. Privacy laws would have all sorts of unintended consequences. A legal recourse for ordinary people libelled by the press whereby retractions are published on the front page would be a step in the right direction. What we don’t want to see is genuine investigative journalism undermined. Just as we don’t want to see people’s lives ruined by an out of control feral press.
If we ever do see privacy laws enacted, then the blame lies firmly with the fourth estate who took the principle of a free press and screwed it to the wall.