Monday, 23 May 2011

I knew Fred the Shred was playing away two months ago!

The news that Fred the Shred Goodwin, Britain’s most hated former banker, was playing away from home (to use the family-friendly metaphor) whilst in charge of one of the biggest banks in the world was not news to me.

Why? Because I had read the Daily Telegraph story from the 10th March which reported Liberal MP John Hemming’s ‘outing’ of the injunction in the House of Commons under the protection of Parliamentary Privilege.

Why, I asked myself at the time, would the Telegraph refer to two other cases of ‘celebrities’ taking out super injunctions to protect extra-marital affairs in paragraphs 9 and 10 of the story unless Freddie had been up to much the same? The clincher was that the paper-based version of the story also carried a photo of Fred with his ‘loyal’ wife.

Friday’s Daily Mail twisted itself into knots defending its right to publish the story on the grounds of public interest, by telling us all that Fred’s bedroom antics had caused him to take his eye off the ball leading to the collapse of the bank.

That’s strange, I thought the collapse of RBS was due to its acquisition of the Dutch investment bank ABN Amro for an inflated price and finding itself massively exposed to the American mortgage credit market, but what do I know.

However, in one respect both Fred and Imogen Thomas of Big Brother fame have done us a great favour in recent weeks.

The absurdity of the current situation is now clear for all to see, from Twitter users unmasking the Premiership footballer in question, through to the Daily Telegraph’s Fred the Shred seed trail and yesterday’s Sunday Herald front page.

The national newspapers would have us believe this is a clear demonstration that privacy laws cannot work in the social media age. That is convenient for them as it leaves them free to continue their campaign to overturn the use of gagging orders and super-injunctions, in order to return to the age of anything goes reporting when the media alone decided what is and what isn’t in the public interest.

I’m not so sure. One of the interesting points to come out of last week’s High Court hearings was that News International did not even bother to use the public interest defence when supporting Imogen’s attempt to overturn the gagging order. I can only assume they were advised that this line of argument would not work with a footballer who has never appeared in the pages of Hello or OK magazine, has never publicly portrayed himself as a ‘family man’ in order to win endorsements and has scrupulously protected his private life for the best part of twenty years. What’s more, the case would never have come to light if it had not been for Imogen’s attempt, in the words of the judge, to blackmail the footballer in question.

I am not for a moment defending either Fred or the footballer. However, it is clear we are now caught between a rock and a hard place, namely the right to privacy, enshrined in the Human Rights Act, and a free press which, at its best, has done much to uncover the dodgy dealings of those in power, such as the MP's expenses scandal, but at its worst is using the public interest defence to invade personal privacy in order to sell more newspapers.

What we need is for somebody, be it Parliament or a beefed up Press Complaints Commission to define what the public interest actually is. Good luck with that one.


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