Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Thursday 14 April 2011

Injunct and be damned.

ANOTHER week, another injunction. This time a world-famous actor who employed the services of a £195-a-pop hooker who, as is so often the way with hookers, turned out not only to sell her story but also to have bedded Wayne Rooney.

Now, none of us really give a damn who Mr Actor Man had sex with. The only reason the public are interested in such shenanigans is a prurient and very human fascination with the love lives of the others, just in case they are doing something we're not, or worse, doing it better than us. That's the way of the world and it's not going to change unless someone finds a way to rewrite our DNA or explain the sexual attraction of Jeremy Clarkson.

So why do newspapers, which are rarely safe on the moral high ground, offer up this very common denominator? Well, three reasons. First because news is a business, with shareholders and profit margins like every other industry, and they'll print whatever sells. Sex, crime, gossip, marriage break-ups, and people off the telly are all grist for the mill. If it goes on, it goes in.

Secondly, Fleet Street takes a mischievous approach to the great and the good. If they deserve the pedestal let them climb up and stand on it - but never, under any circumstances, should they feel safe up there. They're going to get the odd poke just to see if they wobble and that's as it should be in a free and fair society.

So if a politician tells us how to live our lives then we get to keep an eye on theirs, too. John Major's ill-fated Back to Basics campaign in the early 1990s would have collapsed a lot sooner - taking his government with it - if we'd known at the time he'd been cheating on his wife with Edwina Currie. Someone who makes the laws and then breaks them should be exposed for it, however minor and yes, former Solicitor General Harriet Harman who chats on her mobile while driving and then has an accident, that does mean you.

Celebrities who supplement their fortunes by selling their privacy to glossy magazines in return for a good write-up and a big cheque will have that family life scrutinised by others too, however much Katie Price hates the idea. An athlete who wants to represent their country and captain the national football team doesn't have to be an angel, John Terry, but most of us expect him to keep his pants up while he's doing it. If an average man gets named in the local paper when he's arrested with a prostitute then so does Hugh Grant, although he got a little more space devoted to his story.

In such ways the Press promotes a pleasing kind of equality - everyone's fair game, and we're all the same kind of fallible idiot, no matter how rich or pretty or clever. There is no 'them and us', there's just 'us'.

The third reason is by far the best. We do it because we can.

Because can you imagine what would happen if we couldn't?

If we stopped poking, and pushing, and prodding at everyone and everything, it would not be long before someone on a pedestal realised that not only could they abuse their position, but more importantly they could get away with it. The rich, the powerful, those with something to hide. I like living in a free country. I don't want that to change.

So how does Mr Actor Man and his wandering willy affect our freedoms? Well, I'll tell you. Newspapers have a finite budget for legal bills. That pot - bigger at some papers than others - goes to pay lawyers, court fees, and settle disputes. The legal firms who take on newspapers often do so on a no-win, no-fee basis to the client and charge very high fees to the paper if they win. The potential cost can be so high that often Editors have to be pragmatic and settle a claim, even one they think they can win, simply so their budgets can live to fight another day. For example I would not be surprised to learn Sienna Miller earns more from writing letters to newspapers than she does from acting.

So if someone famous gets targeted by a newspaper - and the famous are pretty rich to begin with - and they don't fancy being on the front page, they can afford to really go to town. If they want an injunction it's often granted temporarily, blocking publication until a newspaper can prove the story is true and argue the subjects should be named, which can be an expensive and drawn-out process. Then they can have super-injunctions, which bans the subjects from even saying they have been injuncted.

Breaking those injunctions carries the risk of massive fines, jail time, and confiscation of personal property. Of late, lawyers have begun to demand that not only newspapers can be injuncted like this but also the source of the story - so a member of the public is banned, under threat of financial and personal ruin, from speaking to anyone about their own personal life, or even saying they have been banned at all.

And where celebrities successfully blunder in, the corrupt soon follow. The same type of injunctions have been issued against those trying to expose political and corporate wrongdoing, with the added weight of hyper-injunctions which ban the source from discussing the story with their MP and gagging its discussion in Parliament - supposedly the last bastion of free speech in the country.

There are more than 30 celebrity-based injunctions around at the moment, by the last count. A lot of them are very silly, like Mr Actor Man who apparently "kisses like a virgin", enjoys unspeakable things being done to him with a sex toy, and whose identity I know but can't tell you under threat of everything outlined above.

He's got the injunction because he doesn't want his wife to find out, or their friends, or to have his employment prospects ruined or to be publicly embarrassed. He's taken the kind of court action available only to the privileged few and perhaps believes he is fighting to protect the privacy of the common man, as well as that of his dirty linen. But every time a person of wealth or power, or simply ego, gets to bend the law around themselves I feel a little more uneasy.

It sets an unpleasant precedent. A rich man caught with his trousers down demands the courts treat him as though he's better than everyone else in the country, and a week later a rich man whose company's done something dreadful will gag an MP. If the Press stopped testing the boundary between privacy and secrecy the two would soon become blurred. And a hooker has as much right to speak freely as a corporate whistleblower.

I'm not trying to claim that every newspaper editor who publishes a kiss and tell, or tries to overturn an injunction about a footballer and a Big Brother contestant, does so in the interests of freedom of speech rather than getting a good yarn in the paper. But this is the back story journalists all know and which perhaps you don't, and goes some way to explaining the impish attitude Fleet Street takes to certain people and situations.

So I hope you understand when I say, despite how his wife might feel, I hope Mr Actor Man's identity is revealed. I'm glad Jeremy Clarkson's hotel room trysts with a 6ft blonde have been published. I'm thrilled the super-injunction about oil firm Trafigura dumping chemical waste failed, that we know what a dirty dog John Terry is, and that I think Sienna Miller ought to accept when she's in a public place the public has every right to take her picture.

Injunctions are often granted under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which outlines a respect for private and family life. The law was not designed to protect a secret life, and the two are very different. If Mr Actor Man wants to protect his family he should stop putting his winky in hookers, and if he wants my respect he'll have to start by decrying the inequality of a justice system which this week named the fallen woman but not the dirty dog who paid for her.

And next time you hear a celebrity talk about their privacy, remember the advice which Paul McCartney's former PR man Geoff Baker used to give: "If you don't want to get caught doing it - don't do it."