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