Sunday, July 27, 2008

Caught In The Act

[Max Mosley, President of the FIA, has won his privacy case against the News of the World]

There’s a big difference between “public interest” and “what the public are interested in”. That was the crux of the legal argument in the Mosley case. The tabloids fear the end of press freedom. But how many stories, justified by public interest, are really only there to sell newspapers?

No wonder Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had their twins in France. Since 1970 there’s been a law that gives everyone, however famous, the right to a private life; it’s also illegal to publish a photograph without the subject’s permission. Of course, there’ve been ludicrous consequences: the French electorate knew nothing of President Mitterrand’s mistress and illegitimate daughter; a magazine was fined for revealing that Prince Albert of Monaco has a son by a former air stewardess.

It’s hard to imagine a British court banning similar bombshells from our public domain. If Prince Charles had an illegitimate son, disclosure would undoubtedly be in the national interest. But where do you draw the line? A premiership footballer in a gay relationship; the head of a sports organisation with a fondness for perverted sex; the postman seducing your next-door neighbour? The line between what the public wants to read and what it has the right to read has never been drawn in Britain; largely because the press cries foul at any restriction over what they can or can’t print.

Unlike most newspaper columnists, who have jumped straight onto the “free speech and public morality” bandwagon, I’m finding it hard to get off the fence on this issue. That’s because I know how devastating it can be to have one’s life pulled apart by the tabloids.

I’m not looking for sympathy, far from it. It was many years ago during my wild days and I was guilty, caught in the act. I am deeply ashamed of a sequence of events that led to a 3am phone to my Los Angeles hotel suite where I was ensconced with a married television presenter. “Mr Gutteridge? Nigel Dempster of the Daily Mail. We know whom you’re with, and, thanks to our front page this morning, so does all of Britain. Just look out of your hotel window.” I peeped through the curtains: paparazzi lenses lined the street, shutters primed.

I first rang my wife to confess, and then tried to figure out how to leave the hotel without being photographed. The Sunset Marquis is used to celebrity scandal. They booked us on a Virgin flight and a black limousine arrived outside the entrance, instantly devoured by the snappers. Meanwhile in the staff car park, we climbed into a cheap hire car and drove to British Airways where the head of customer services organized an incognito flight home: I suspect he’s done it many times before. We avoided the paparazzi, but for days dozens camped outside my home taking pictures of my sad family.

Some celebrities believe there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But for an ordinary person caught in the crossfire, being on the front pages for what seemed like weeks (actually, it was just a few days), was shattering. Embarrassed and depressed, for seven weeks I cowardly hid out in a hotel under a false name; in public places I searched over my shoulder for long lenses in the bushes; I put my life on hold; it destroyed what was left of my marriage. What I should have done was go home, face the music, and try to rebuild. But the feeling that somehow my life was being studied through a public lens made private reflection impossible. It was nonsense, of course: people were no more interested in me or my affair than any other piece of newspaper tittle-tattle, consumed in seconds and dumped in the recycling bin.

Hopefully this week’s furore will lead to a proper public debate on privacy. Somehow I doubt our fearless press will allow it.

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