Sunday, May 22, 2011


Indignation in the mainstream media, and gloating by the twitterati - that's pretty much how the superinjunction story has run so far. The press are indignant that they cannot publish what the twitterer on the street seems to know about #ctb and Imogen someone-or-other. And the idea that the courts can apply sweeping injunctions to silence discussion of the peccadillos of the rich strikes the press where it hurts - in their pride, and their pockets!

Injunctions are bad enough, the story goes, but superinjunctions are a step too far in a free society. Are they, though? What is actually going on? Is this really one law for the rich and famous, and another for the rest of us?

Actually, not so much. We normal people expect that the press won't print details of our personal lives - we rarely have to deal with more than gossip from those we know. The press, by and large, go along with this. They even extend this courtesy (or legal protection) to the children of the rich or famous.

And then something strange happens... The tabloids have somehow convinced us that the freedom of the press is at stake if they cannot write freely about people's private lives where that will sell more papers. People in whom people are interested, it seems, no longer have any privacy. But do they - and should they?

In France there is a different approach. The press turns a blind eye when the rich and famous have extra-marital flings. That, they consider, is their own... affair. Public figures, like the rest of us, can have a private life. But this can go too far - apparently allegations of rape, like those against M. Strauss-Kahn in the US, are often also brushed aside.

Private individuals do not have a right to privacy in such cases - but it seems to me that the same standard should apply to "public figures" (whatever that means). They should not expect impunity for criminal behaviour.

On the other hand, why does a person's right to privacy vanish just because the tabloids can make money by selling us the details?

Does speaking to the press on any issue whatsoever strip you of the right to a private life?

Can any accomplishment or achievement whatsoever really give the media carte-blanche to air all the details of your private life?

And where would that take us as a society? What sort of shallow narcissism are we demanding of our public figures, politicians, sportsmen, that they must agree to such intrusion, as the price for exercising their skills and abilities in the public sphere?

A free press is in the public interest, and the public interest demands that criminal activity be brought to light, that conflicts of interest by our leaders be exposed, that blatant hypocrisy by our moral guardians (in the press and outside) be shown up.

But the public interest is not the same as what the public might like to know. There is a difference between news and gossip, and our press has lost sight of this.