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

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Privacy is a funny business.

THE word 'private' doesn't mean what most people think it does.

It gets confused with 'secret', more often than not, and is invoked to stop other people knowing things about you which you'd rather they didn't.

Hence its use by guilty parties to try to stop potential newspaper stories involving affairs, drug habits, sexual peccadilloes, finances, taxes, corrupt business deals and crimes the police haven't found out about yet.

Agents, publicists, lawyers and spokesmen of every sort and stripe will squawk "PRIVATE!" down the phone at journalists most days, when the word they should be using is 'personal'.

The trouble from their point of view is that 'personal' doesn't strike fear into any hack's heart in quite the same way as 'private', which carries with it the implied threat of punitive legal action and an almost-definite bollocking from someone.

The trouble with 'private' though is that it does not actually mean those things. The word means, instead, that something belongs to you or affects only you.

So your garden is private. Your masturbatory habits are private. But if you choose to combine the two your neighbours may feel that it affects them and then the police, and if it is newsworthy in some way journalists as well, will want to get involved.

We all feel our sex lives are private, but if our partners feel our conduct has not been up to par in some respect they have a right to speak about their own sex lives, and the bit which involves you.

Those who abuse drugs may feel it's their personal choice but families, friends, the police and criminal justice system think there's a lot of other people affected by it too and again they may want to express an opinion.

Such is life; we all like to keep things private unless we feel we might benefit from sharing. Hence the kiss-and-tell. When this Fleet Street staple makes a comeback please don't think less of people for taking a cheque to bare their hearts. Would you do it for free?

Before Leveson and phone-hacking there was a greater scandal gripping the Press and that was privacy injunctions. I've written before about who and what they were about so won't repeat myself here except to say some were reasonable but most were an appalling abuse of statute.

The vague law they were based on - 17 words in the Human Rights Act - was about protecting people's rights about things that belonged to them or affected only them. Instead it was used in many cases to get an injunction about things which might affect the money in rich people's pockets, and were therefore worth the £50,000 lawyers charged for saving their blushes.

Some injunctions were broken or lifted, and after Ryan Giggs, Jeremy Clarkson and Andrew Marr failed to lose any money as a result the celebrity taste for running to a costly law firm waned.

But one or two people were still silly enough to think bending the law to suit their purposes was a good use of time and cash. Which brings me to Caroline Spelman, the millionairess Secretary of State for the Environment.

Informed that her son Jonny, 17, a schoolboy rugby star who had played for England's youth team, was about to be exposed as a drugs cheat by the Daily Fnar Funday, she got a privacy injunction banning publication.

The judge, his hands burned by previous gags which were later found to be flawed, refused to make the order anonymous and therefore everyone knew the story was about Ms Spelman's son, that he was a rugby player, and a guessing game ensued about whether it was to do with sex or drugs.

A few weeks later we all knew which, because the paper won a subsequent hearing and published its story about this young man who had represented his country and was taking banned substances including anabolic steroids and a growth hormone following an injury.

That's not private. It's not even got a shot at being private. It's illegal to import such potions, which he did by buying them over the internet, it's against the rules of his sport to take them, and the people he paid for them were almost certainly criminals.

As a result of that story this lad has been punished by being banned from playing rugby for 21 months by the Rugby Football Union. As he should be, and I'm sure getting the police involved would be overkill.

Despite already spunking £61,000 on shirking responsibility, the Spelmans are funding an appeal which may reduce the length of the ban. But the fact remains - this was never private. It was instead about a Government minister attempting to force an illegal gag on the Press in order to protect a criminal family member.

That is utterly disgraceful behaviour from a public servant in a free country. It's what you'd expect in corrupt states run by despots, the sort of place with lottery scams and home-brewed petrol.

Ms Spelman will presumably cry motherhood as a defence and say she did it to prevent the attention that publication would have brought her son and the damage it would cause his career. That, had it been granted, it would also have spared her the same attention was merely a beneficial side-effect.

The fact is that most mothers in that situation would tell their son to face the consequences of his actions, whatever they may be, in the hope he would learn not to repeat his mistakes.

That basic process is the root of morality, the idea that if you go wrong you will be punished in some way is the main thing which keeps all of us on the straight and narrow.

But then, we're expected to be good, pay our taxes and keep our heads down, while the people in charge plough their own furrow which they can make as wonky and wiggly as they please without the barest hint of shame or disgrace.

Jonny Spelman's been punished enough.

His mother should be sacked.

But I expect she'd like to kill some badgers and sell off the forests first.


Stuart said...

What a disgrace! problem is they're all at it these days using and abusing the system... all the party's are the same these days except for a few "tweaks" they all tell us at election time what we want to hear... get in and do what the heck they like!!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

One rule for them... I'm not sure whether it's the press doing their job or the fact that we're all suspicious of what they're up to so more alert to their shenanigans, but this lot seem to be one of the most self serving, if not corrupt, bunch of incompetents for a while.

Martin said...

Sorry but what was illegal about Speleman using the courts? If a court allows a gag how can that be illegal? It might be wrong but not illegal. I'm not sure of the point you're trying to make.

Spelman should be sacked, but she should be sacked for being shit at her job, another politician over promoted because she has a set of breasts. The Tory party is full of them be it Warsi, Spelman or May. Oh there are plenty of shit male ones as well.

Had she let the original story go it would have probably been ignored as no one reads the Daily Star except pervy creeps wanting a wank over page 3.

Anonymous said...

As always. On the money Foxy.

Anonymous said...

It's not illegal to import steroids - s58 of the Medicines Act 1968 states that imports of medicines for personal use and imports by householders for administration to members of their household is legal. Unless they're fakes.

Foxy said...

Anabolic steroids and growth hormone are not medicines. They're classified as class C drugs by UKBA and their importation is illegal.

Anonymous said...

It's illegal to take steroids that haven't been prescribed to you by a doctor. Misuse of Drugs Act, as amended in 1996.

Patrick said...

Foxy, I take your point about Spelman - but in terms of the kiss and tell, I don't get the justification if it's between two (or even more, if they're feeling adventurous) consenting adults that aren't deceiving any significant others. If I tell my best friend about something personal, and it's clearly a private thing (like an embarrassing personal fact), I don't expect to see it in the papers. Sexual relationships to me seem inherently private, a ridiculously intimate activity, and unless both partners are willing to contribute it to the public domain I can't see why papers should be able to report it. There's a reasonable expectation of privacy there in my book, and most things that you do in your personal life should be judged on the circumstances surrounding the activities you engage in before deeming it private or not.

I think the current approach is the right one in the courts - determining on the circumstances whether the information is private, then balancing the right to respect for private life and freedom of speech. Even in regards to injunctions, S12(1) (I think) of the Human Rights Act means the courts have to be happy that the claimant more likely than not is going to succeed at trial for privacy cases - not always an easy thing to do.

In fairness as well, the Human Rights Act didn't by itself create the privacy system. Sure, it increased the protection for individuals but English law had laid some of the foundations for our current system before the European Convention of Human Rights was contemplated. Best thing to do now would be to implement the media regulation tribunal Hugh Tomlinson's proposed - take things out of the courts, into highly skilled tribunals, lowering costs and providing a more reasonable solution for all parties.

will said...

Sorry but how would it have been "news" if he wasn't related to a government minister? It's right he is punished by his school and his sport but how many others get the same punishment without the additional stigma of a press story due to nothing other than his family?

Patrick said...

oops, that's a bit long. sorry.

Anonymous said...

Yeah a 21 month ban is in no way punishment enough...

Anonymous said...

Hang about, he's 17 yes? Yet he has at least two tattoos? It would appear criminality is rife within this family...

Anonymous said...

The phrases power corrupts and people in glass houses jumps to mind.

Foxy said...

You've mixed up private and personal. Sex is personal, but it doesn't belong to you or affect only you. If a girl chose to have sex with you, then go down the pub and tell her mates about it, she is legally able to. Gossip is not illegal. What newspapers do is the same thing on a larger scale.

While it's not always nice, to remove the right of newspapers to spread gossip would have an impact on the freedom of expression of every ordinary person who might also want to gossip. That's the thing about freedom - if you want it, everyone has to have the same. You can't pick and choose or it's not actually free.

Foxy said...

To be fair, it would still be a story (albeit a smaller one) if any ex-England player was banned for importing growth hormone and anabolic steroids. Her involvement simply ramped the interest up.

Anonymous said...

i think your personal/ private distinction is irrelevant in this case. i don't think much of spelman per se - but in this case, she's just a parent trying to use every legal means potentially at her disposal to
protect her son from the consequences of a mistake that will do lasting damage to his reputation (which, at least in part, only made the papers because of who his mother is). what parent wouldn't do the same? i would.

Anonymous said...

So you would protect a person who cheated his way through what is meant to be a fair game? He's 17, he shouldn't be protected from anything he should bear the full brunt of his actions, and she made the story a lot bigger than it would have been had she not intervened.

Anonymous said...

That roid monkey should be put away to protect people from the rage brought on by clearly having a tiny tiny penis.

Anonymous said...

He is the youngest British sportsman to get a doping ban. It may not be page 1 of a tabloid, but it IS news.

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