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Mary Ann Sieghart: We do need to stop the muck-rakers

The Independent, 20 June 2011

The editors will protest about loss of free speech. But reports based on privacy intrusion are lazy journalism

Why do we hate famous people so much? No, truly, we must do. Otherwise we'd treat them with the same compassion that we afford to friends, neighbours and blamelessly ordinary people. Instead, we behave as if, once they've made a couple of successful films, they forfeit their human rights.

The Human Rights Act is supposed to give us all "the right to respect for our private and family life, our home and our correspondence". Some newspapers act as if this law had never been passed. Every day, they are full of salacious stories and photographs of so-called celebrities, some of which represent a gross and gratuitous invasion into their privacy.

I say "so-called" because there is a difference between those who are famous merely for being famous and those who are celebrated because they have talent in a particular field. The former - the likes of Katie Price - would wilt without the camera lens on them. They love the fame, and love the "ker-ching" of paparazzi shutters just as much as the papers love the "ker-ching" of the profits they make.

It's the ones with talent I worry about. Hugh Grant, the film actor, bravely spent 15 minutes on Radio 4's PM programme last week defending the right for people like him to retain a smidgen of a private life. He described how he had to sweep his car for bugs and expect every bush he walks past to be hiding a photographer. Yet, "I don't really think I've committed a crime. All I've made is a few films - some bad, some good - and I don't really see why that means my basic human rights have to be snatched from me for someone else's profit."

Recently, The Sun wrote about his being admitted to hospital. It had a list of his symptoms, suggesting that the informant wasn't a member of the public waiting in A&E, but a member of the hospital staff whom Grant might justifiably have expected to be able to trust. That's the second time for him that a trip to hospital has made it into the tabloids.

How hateful it must be - when you are at your most vulnerable - to have to feel suspicious about the nurse or doctor who is treating you. What possible public interest can there be in revealing that most private of information? And what has Grant done to deserve it, apart from being a good comic actor? He doesn't court publicity. He gives interviews only rarely, at the behest of the studios whose films he sometimes has to promote. He doesn't live by the sword. As he points out, Love Actually did very well at the box office despite Grant and the rest of the cast refusing interviews to the British tabloids. It did so because it was a funny film in which the actors did a good job.

Yet Grant has had his phone hacked and bugged. The police who are now investigating the News of the World phone-hacking scandal told him that the private eye Glenn Mulcaire had reams of information about him, including his bank account and details about friends and family with their addresses.

So what redress does Grant have? Or less celebrated people, whose privacy is also invaded by the red-tops, often because a member of their family has been horribly murdered? Well, if the information has been obtained illegally, say through bugging or phone-hacking, they may be offered compensation - though the News of the World case has taken pitifully long to be properly investigated.

Then there are, of course, injunctions. Sometimes these are misused, as in the case of Trafigura, which obtained one to prevent the media reporting its dumping of toxic waste. But an injunction defending an individual's privacy, when publication could have no conceivable public-interest defence, is surely justifiable.

However, injunctions are not just hideously expensive and beyond the reach of most people; they also rely on the victim knowing in advance that a newspaper plans a breach of privacy. Was Grant expected to take out an injunction before being rushed to hospital? Max Mosley couldn't get an injunction before the News of the World published photos and videos of him indulging in an orgy because he had no idea the story was going to run.

In the end, Mosley won £60,000 damages plus costs from the News of the World, but not before his reputation had been irreversibly trashed and his life ruined. For privacy is perishable. Defamation is different: if people win a libel action, their reputation is restored. In privacy cases, the information is true, but embarrassingly personal. Even if compensation is paid, the privacy can't be retrieved.

The tabloids rely on their victims not being rich or determined enough to go down the Mosley route. They know that the Press Complaints Commission is pretty toothless. The Commission has no statutory powers and no ability to fine wrongdoers. So, for instance, it castigated The Daily Telegraph for its use of reporters disguised as constituents to garner indiscretions from MPs in the privacy of their constituency surgeries, but the Telegraph has still made a shedful of money from its stories, and all it did in return was print the PCC judgment with no apology, topped by eight paragraphs of self-justification.

At the moment, there is a race to the bottom among the mass-market press. No paper wants to be scooped by a rival, and they all know that prurient photos and stories win readers. In the past, they resorted to illegal methods, such as phone-hacking or bugging, to get exclusives. Even if those practices have stopped, they still act in blatant breach of the PCC's Code of Conduct and the Human Rights Act.

There has to be a better way. Newspapers are deterred from printing defamatory stories by the law of libel. In-house lawyers scour articles before they are printed for defamatory allegations. If the price of gratuitously invading people's privacy were as high as the price of defaming them, editors would be much more careful about what they printed. It may be that the PCC should be given the power to levy serious fines for breach of its code. Or it may be that a proper privacy law should be brought in that gives victims a chance of redress at a cost that isn't astronomical.

Newspapers should be allowed a public-interest defence so that the rich and the powerful aren't allowed to hide important secrets. And they should be able to argue that celebrities who assiduously court publicity - say by selling their weddings to Hello! magazine - have forfeited their right to privacy.

The editors will protest about the loss of free speech. What they really fear is that it will undermine their business model. But reports based on privacy invasion are lazy journalism. If the playing field were raised so that none of the papers was allowed to depend on intrusion, they would have to compete instead by telling the real news in an entertaining way and campaigning on behalf of their readers. That's how papers used to thrive. There's no reason why they shouldn't do so again.

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