12 March 2002 – The notable assemblage of editors who gathered in Fleet Street’s St Bride’s Church on Monday to hear Prince Charles deliver a sermon on their complaining ways, must have had trouble in remaining in their pews. This was not because of the Prince’s boring admonitions – they expect no better from such a quarter – but because of the news that the Court of Appeal had just ruled in favour of The People in its bid to name and shame an adulterous footballer.
There were unconfirmed reports of dancing in the streets, of the Sun‘s David Yelland embracing the Mirror‘s Piers Morgan, and of Sir Rupert Murdoch carefully examining his wallet to see if there was room for the extra profits engendered by this ruling. For, barring a last-minute reversal by the House of Lords, it is now open season on celebrity peccadilloes. All those sinful notables rushing to the courts for injunctions to protect their privacy under the Human Rights Act can save their money. The word is out, courtesy of the Lord Chief Justice himself: those who live by publicity can expect no judicial mercy.
Lord Woolf’s judgement was notable in a number of ways, not least for the passage in which he said: “In our view, to grant an injunction would be an unjustified interference with the freedom of the press. Once it is accepted that the freedom of the press should prevail, then the form of reporting in the press is not a matter for the courts but for the Press Council and the customers of the newspaper concerned.”
Note the last sentence. If Lord Woolf expects the Press Council to exercise any control over newspapers he may have to perform a notable act of resurrection. The Press Council went out of existence some 12 years ago, when its funding was withdrawn by the industry after it proposed a code to curb editors’ behaviour. Since 1991 we have had the Press Complaints Commission (of which the editor of The People is a member) set up to avoid the threat of legislation to protect privacy. It is probably unreasonable to expect the Lord Chief Justice to know this. Rather more serious is his suggestion that “customers” should have the deciding say. This clearly indicates that Lord Woolf sees no distinction whatever between “the public interest” and “what interests the public.” Which, for those interested in standards of journalism, is a sad state of affairs.
Not (yet) knowing the name of the footballer involved in this case, it is impossible to say whether he has previously set himself up in the media as a paragon of family virtue. If so he would be guilty of hypocrisy and deserve The People‘s attention, though it is worth noting that this story is yet another example of chequebook journalism, involving a dispute over payments by the two women concerned.
More worrying is the licence which newspapers may feel Lord Woolf has given them to delve into the private lives of ordinary citizens. Monday was indeed a great day for press freedom; less so for press responsibility.
(Bulletin No 61)