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

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Don't shoot the messenger.

WE can probably all agree that what goes on in bedrooms, so long as it's legal, is none of our business.

Most of us would likewise concur that the contents of people's mobile telephones are best not reported on by journalists.

After a year-long inquiry into the ways and morality of the Press, there's probably quite a large number of us who think the people journalists write about are unwilling victims who are lied about and exploited.

And if anyone did reveal all those things, the public would be so disgusted they would not want to read about it. Right?

Well, we could be forgiven for thinking so until the middle of yesterday afternoon, when the drawn-out, ditzy car crash that is Chantelle Houghton showed the phone-hacking scandal, the Leveson inquiry and public moral outrage are only one side of the coin.

For those who don't know, Chantelle 'shot to fame' in 2006 on a series of Celebrity Big Brother, on which she was the only contestant who was not a celebrity. She had to pretend to be one for a week, and did so well - she's quite pretty, sweet-natured and dim - she went on to win the whole show.

She then married a fellow contestant after a bit of a love triangle with his existing fiancee, and they split, reconciled, divorced, and then did what most once-married couples would avoid at all costs and appeared together again in a recent Celebrity Big Brother.

Chantelle, a former Paris Hilton impersonator, model and promotions girl, has never displayed what her critics would call talent. She can't sing, dance, write, act, or anything else that usually sustains a public profile. And she is also, due to that profile, virtually unemployable in any other job.

Chantelle has one ability, which is being charmingly thick about men and then telling everyone about it. Quite sensibly, she has based her career upon the only skill she boasts and has done quite well, earning more than a million from it with appearances in magazines and television in return for revealing all about her personal life.

She's had her day in newspapers as well - but she doesn't sell like she did and budgets are smaller, so she usually only appears in tabloids when they are poking fun at her and they get the pictures cheap.
 
Yesterday Chantelle did something which, if a journalist had done it, would lead to a dawn raid from 10 Met officers in jumpsuits keen to seize everything in their house that wasn't nailed down.

She revealed the contents of another individual's mobile telephone, made allegations about his sexual proclivities, and identified two people he apparently had affairs with.

All without showing us the proof, it must be said, and what's more she did it for free. That's citizen journalism and open news for you.

Now there will be a number of you rolling your eyes or muttering about tittle-tattle and proper news. I look forward to seeing you in the comments section later. But stick with me, because what Chantelle has done is extremely important for 'proper news' in ways I am about to explain.

This woman did what many of us have, and trawled her partner's mobile. It is different, but very similar to, hacking. Whether it's text messages, accessing a call log, or perhaps ringing the voicemail and listening to what you find, it's electronic trespass and punishable, theoretically, by the law.

Because many of us look through a partner's phone to confirm or allay suspicions, it's unlikely to get anyone arrested. But while there's a big difference between that and blagging the pin code to a murdered schoolgirl's phone for a story, it is on the same spectrum. It is morally more acceptable to many, but technically a very similar offence.

Now if her partner had revealed his text messages to the world that would be one thing. But for an unfriendly ex to do so is, quite obviously, a breach of privacy. If I found Hugh Grant's mobile in a bar and posted the contents online I'd soon have be injuncted for denying his human right to respect for his privacy.

Yet it is common for people to post online things they see, hear and find out in the course of their day. We all live-tweet conversations overheard, photograph people misbehaving, and cast aspersions about friends, family and the famous without providing evidence to support them. We breach our own privacy by putting our personal details online, and we breach that of others without asking them first if they mind. Read thy own status updates before casting any stones.

Chantelle's ex - a cross-dressing cagefighter once married to Katie Price, none of which seems to have rung any alarm bells - is known to be a little odd. But it was not suspected, until she told a quarter of a million people on Twitter yesterday, that he had allegedly constructed a 'sex dungeon' in her flat, made her sleep on the floor while pregnant, used hookers, attended orgies or had gay flings in his alternative persona of Roxanne.

Unless it is true, those allegations are defamatory. If they are true, they are precisely the same kind of information about high-profile people often protected from publication by injunction, and which the likes of Max Mosley think the subject should always be forwarned about so they can injunct if they wish.

None of it's illegal, so no-one could argue the public interest. But yet it was of supreme interest to thousands of people yesterday, as even a quick search on Twitter would have proved. There were plenty who did not notice or care, but many, many more passing comment, having a nose, telling their mates about it and generally spreading gossip based on unfounded, unfriendly, private information gained through phone-hacking.

Think about that for just a second. We all generally try to be good as much as we can, and we all like to think of ourselves as 'above' socially-unacceptable behaviour or prurient interest in the sex lives of celebrities major or minor.

Put your hand on your heart and tell me you didn't read those tweets yesterday and that you won't go and seek them out now I've told you about them. If you can't honestly do that, then you have to admit you enjoy a bit of meaningless tittle-tattle about the private lives of others.

Let's leave aside the objections to people like Chantelle and her inevitable fitness DVD, mental breakdown, one true love, marriage, divorce, boob reconstruction, bankruptcy, eventual retirement to run an animal sanctuary and moral objections to someone who's made a fortune out of not much.

A person is not a newspaper, and it's right that we have more rules and standards to stick to than the average Twitbooker. But a newspaper speaks to and for the people who read it, and that means you don't just say the things they want to hear.

If some kinds of phone-hacking are all right - be it you at home keeping an eye on your partner, or a journalist trying to expose a crime - then we need to qualify the law to reflect that, because at the moment both are equally punishable.

If we treat privacy as a commodity, whether by selling stories as a career, posting things online or as Charlotte Church recently did invite journalists into our home to tell them about our personal lives to publicise a new album, then we need to separate genuinely-private individuals from people who object only when their privacy is breached by someone they haven't sold it to.

And if we accept that, as normal, healthy, gossipy human beings we all like a bit of prurient, salacious, entirely unnecessary detail in our lives whether it is about a cagefighter or the next door neighbour - well, then we need to keep our moral outrage for things we don't secretly enjoy.

You probably didn't want to hear that.


23 comments:

Sniers Moregut said...

Great piece & I largely agree. But is a Z list non-entity's sexual proclivities & choices in any way on any day in the PUBLIC interest? Ever? Surely that's the nub of scandal & how it's obtained?

Anonymous said...

One of the more quirky arguments made for the development of language in humans is that it wasn't about the need to convey important "big" ideas, it was primarily to enable gossip. We love to talk about other people - the rise of the mass media has merely enabled us to talk about people we don't know and will never meet.
And yes, there is a very fine line to be drawn between "gossip" and "news" - the Jimmy Savile story illustrates this alarmingly clearly (and, incidentally, makes me slightly more convinced that most of the stories about Michael Jackson were indeed just stories...)

But I do think there is a clear difference between someone choosing to give out information (as in the Charlotte Church example you cite) and those to whom it is done without a choice, as in the man in this case, whether or not the "victim" has previously made such things public themselves. And that's where the line between privacy and public interest becomes blurred, and why I don't envy Lord Leveson at all in writing his report.

Personally, I think that mobile hacking, like email hacking, phone tapping or opening someone else's post, should be illegal, full stop, regardless of the intent unless it is part of a formal criminal investigation. That doesn't mean that journalists and bloggers can't be part of such an operation however, but that will require a significant recasting of certain relationships and I'm not sure we're quite ready for that sort of radical shift just yet (given that handled badly it leads to vigilantism and that's almost always a bad thing.)

Foxy said...

Of course not. It didn't stop thousands of people poking their noses in yesterday, though, did it?

Foxy said...

And what if it's done by someone to find out if their partner's cheating? Bang 'em up? Overlook it? Fact is they're very similar, and my point is we treat this as a black and white issue when it's far hazier in practice.

Darcy O'Bree said...

Hmmmm... The moral outrage that people expressed over phone hacking was because a line had been crossed. If it was just about the wounded pride of a few celebs, most of us would not have given a toss. They know how the game is played and that sometimes it's played a bit dirty, yet they choose to play anyway. That's a world away from private individuals like the Dowlers who are thrust into the limelight through unfortunate circumstance.

The other thing that outraged people was how this scandal laid bare the unholy alliances between the government, police and senior media execs. That clearly illustrated how rotten things can get when lines and limits aren't clearly defined and enforced.

Ken Haylock said...

I'm interested in the concept of privacy as a saleable commodity. If Mr Shiny Popstar sells his wedding to Hello!, does that mean he's fair game for his Erectile Dysfunction to be splashed on page 1,2,3,4,5 of a tabloid as they publicise the reasons behind his sensational divorce two years later? I don't know. Half of me thinks 'Live by the sword, die by the sword', the other thinks 'Bastards!'.

Sniers Moregut said...

Of course not, it was a terrific public clusterfuck. But you reference Leveson. A cornerstone of which was "public interest" justifying all sorts of shenanigans. Chantelle's melt does not change the legitimacy or otherwise of phone hack tippety tap or other dark arts re slebs.

Ken Haylock said...

The point about fuzzy lines are, everybody knows when they've been crossed. So, hacking a murdered schoolgirl's phone is clearly over the line. Videoing Max Mosely having a bit of private embarrassing fun with other consenting adults was also over the line, although most peoiple would have said - given his family background - that if he HAD been doing the whole 'nazi' thing, it would have been justified. I'm not sure about even that, though - people have all sorts of private sexual fantasies they wouldn't want to see in the tabloids and I can't see the public interest in that. A more interesting story to me was 'who is paying the people trying to get dirt on Max Mosely'? Where there _would_ have been a public interest in outing Max would be if the fact that he enjoyed a bit of BDSM on the quiet had resulted in him being compromised by blackmailers. Given the way he has fronted down the press after being outed, I'd guess that was never really likely, but it would have been a reasonable thing to look for. Anyway, my point is that most of us knows when a line has been crossed, even if they didn't know when it was actually being crossed, and many parts of the press stands accused of losing that perspective. Nobody cares how you found out if you get the story that MPs are all fiddling their expenses to a level that should have seen most of them locked up. If all the Telegraph had discovered was some questionable stylistic second home soft furnishing choices and one MP who had mistakenly claimed twice for the same bus ticket, a lot more people would have been outraged about the seedy betrayal of MP's privacy...

Anonymous said...

So an 'ex' can look at the contents of a phone, tell the world and it's okay? That makes it okay for a hack to 'report' on trivia to pander to the 'lowest common denominator' of their readers? Wrong on both counts in my opinion. I don't even think the papers should publish 'stories' that aren't news, on the grounds that because some morons think the world revolves around some 'celebrity' and their trivial actions, that story is 'news'.

The only reason for the existence of newspapers today, especially the tabloids, has nothing to do with news. It is to sell newspapers. If you publish rubbish, you are going to attract readers that want to read rubbish. That doesn't make that rubbish 'news'. It just means that you are pandering to a selected audience and should probably drop the word 'news' from your title of 'newspaper'. At least 'Hello' doesn't profess to be providing anything but the shallow dribble they provide for the brain dead, 'celebrity is all' section of society.

Mikey said...

The whole pool is very muddied at the moment - People like Chantelle and Alex Reid depend entirely on under-the-table deals with the paps to pay the rent. Consequently their private life isn't only for sale, it has been sold. And there's no way back.

Unfortunately there's no clear division in the public mind between people like them and, say, Myleene Klass or Charlotte Church. Tabloid readers, and regrettably tabloid editors too, are prone to a sort of mission creep where the coverage of a celebrity turning up to a film premiere bleeds into them at the reception afterwards and then to them taking out the recycling the following morning.

newspapers, readers, and the celebrities themselves are all complicit in an unedifying merry-go-round of publicity for its own sake.

Where does it end?

I don't know, but I suspect that the privacy we take for granted now will seem alien and somewhat quaint to a person living in 2050 whose entire life is searchable online.

Autolycus said...

Not even a moment in the writing of this did Foxy look up from her desk and think "God, I'm using the behaviour exhibited by Chantelle in a post break-up tantrum to try to justify the moral standards of my profession" and realise that this wasn't very persuasive?

mrbrew said...

do you think that the intention of the crime plays any part in our reaction to it? chantelle, appears, to have broken the law after a prolonged period of what sound like pretty tough circumstances. that i can forgive. i can't forgive a private investigator who hacked the phone of a dead child simply to get paid.

Graham Hogg said...

Hand on heart, I had never heard of this person before reading your piece, I will not be looking for her tweets and sincerely hope that I never hear of her again.

Anonymous said...

Miranda Hart must be shitting herself then.

Paul said...

I know it's not black and white and I'm still thinking about this but maybe the difference is that it's clear that she's one of the parties involved, and she's made it clear where she got the information from?
She says that she got the information from his phone.
If the accusations are not true, or she used underhand(illegal) means to access his phone then he can always report her to the Police or take proceedings himself.
I don't really see any difference between what she's done and locking him and his stuff out of the house and painting "Bastard" across his car after she went through his diary in their home.

In comparison it appears that the phone hackers had no relationship with their targets, that it was for commercial gain, and they weren't transparent (at all) as to where they got the information from.

Serena Casey said...

Oh sod it, I hold my hands up high. I think of myself as a basically moral person but I looked and told my mum about it-bring on the condemnation..

Peter said...

I didn't read those tweets yesterday and I won't go and seek them out now. Sorry but what the journalists did is different and they know it

Buddha B'der said...

Is this phone-hacking and the fall-out any worse than the consequences of reading your partner's or child's personal diary? Maybe the best Leveson could do is decree that all of this was the victims' own stupid faults and that, although immoral, nothing illegal was done, and simply encourage everybody to set their phone security if they want to keep nosey-parkers out.

Ken Haylock said...

Oh dear... well pointed out...

edinburgheye said...

that he had allegedly constructed a 'sex dungeon' in her flat, made her sleep on the floor while pregnant, used hookers, attended orgies or had gay flings in his alternative persona of Roxanne.

To break this down:

1) If the sex dungeon is in her flat, she's fully entitled to tell the world about it.

2) If a partner made her sleep on the floor - whether when she was pregnant or at any other time - she's fully entitled to tell the world about it.

3) If her partner used hookers... well, meh. Depends if that intruded on her privacy or not. If in her home, yes, she's entitled to tell the world: if she found out by trawling through his phone, well, no.

4) Her partner's attending orgies or having a transvestite persona or having affairs with men - yes, her revealing this is an invasion of *his* privacy.

I enjoy your political blogs: I doubt I'm alone in finding your occasional forays into frank tabloidism (I mean, who cares?) a little dull. I find your jumbling of these rights to privacy about the most interesting thing in this blog post.

rob said...

@ Buddha B'der

"Is this phone-hacking and the fall-out any worse than the consequences of reading your partner's or child's personal diary? "

Oh dear, you haven't got very far with this have you? The latest is PC hacking. And phone hacking and the like is equivalent to burglary of strangers without them having the inconvenience of breaking in, or in your analogy, entering a house with the door unlocked. It is always easy to condemn the victims until you become a victim yourself.

Anonymous said...

Foxy, I can say with all honesty that I have not, nor will, read these Chantelle tweets. However, that is only because I am far more interested to discover that Hugh Grant is your ex (and that you are not on good terms)!
Roman James

Emma B Table Talks said...

Sooo timely "This house believes if you wanna keep your soul, don't play the chords of fame" Table Talks tonight 8pm The Grasshopper in Westerham .... shameless piggybacking, apologies Miss Fox. Brilliantly written ...

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