Do you know the name of the footballer who had an affair with a very pretty young woman described as a “Big Brother star” or “Welsh model”? Well, if you want to, all you have to do is fish around on Google and you will soon find out (it took me two minutes). And once you do, where will that get you? There seems to be a general consensus these days that we have a right to know these things (Sky News ran a poll, which found that 79% of the population are against the protection of privacy by “super injunctions”, only 21% are opposed): but on what is that opinion based, apart from natural prurience? Journalists themselves don’t necessarily support this supposed right: Dominic Lawson, for instance, has argued against it. He points out that most of those journalists, like the former editor of The Sun who go on most about absolute freedom of the Press come from those newspapers (i.e. the redtop tabloids) who make most money by publishing scandals about the sex lives of famous footballers and other celebrities. In other words, all the high-minded talk about Press freedom is so much rank hypocrisy: what The Sun is really interested in is selling newspapers.
Well, I know the name of the footballer now, and also some of the reasons being given on a certain Spanish website —(in the comments from English correspondents—mostly admiring, “lucky b****r, says one of them—under the story, with its photo of the personable young woman involved)— for why he ought to have had his privacy respected. One argument is that if his name had been revealed before now, his football team would have had its performance affected: it is pointed out that when the affair of a footballer called John Terry became a press scandal, he was sacked as captain of Chelsea (is it?) and the team did less well as a result. But what do I know?
But do we have a right to privacy? According to the Human Rights Act we do: and this is not judge-made law, incidentally, it’s a law passed by Parliament. We are told that we have to balance this article of the Act with another, which insists on the freedom of the Press: but what’s the argument for that, except in a qualified way? Kelvin Mackenzie, former editor of The Sun newspaper points in a starry-eyed way to the first article of the American Constitution, which means among other things that someone accused in America of a serious offence has no sub judice protection against press speculation about his guilt or innocence. Do we really want that?
The fact is that whatever our legal right to privacy, we surely have a moral right to it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, as it happens, has quite about to say about that: it teaches (§2489) that “The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known …. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have a right to know it” . This recalls Newman’s argument (in the Apologia pro Vita Sua) that “an untruth is not a lie where there is a just cause… veracity is a kind of justice, and therefore, when we have no duty of justice to tell truth to another, it is no sin not to do so. Hence we may say the thing that is not, to children, to madmen, to men who ask impertinent questions [my italics]”.
The CCC argues also that
“2491 Professional secrets – for example, those of political office holders, soldiers, physicians, and lawyers – or confidential information given under the seal of secrecy must be kept, save in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very grave harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth. Even if not confided under the seal of secrecy, private information prejudicial to another is not to be divulged without a grave and proportionate reason.”
“2492 Everyone should observe an appropriate reserve concerning persons’ private lives. Those in charge of communications should maintain a fair balance between the requirements of the common good and respect for individual rights. Interference by the media in the private lives of persons engaged in political or public activity is to be condemned to the extent that it infringes upon their privacy and freedom.
The CCC argues also that “Civil authorities should punish any violation of the rights of individuals to their reputation and privacy”. These rights to privacy used to be one of the things we all used to take for granted. The CCC doesn’t produce any supporting argument when it insists on these rights; it simply assumes them as axiomatic and takes it for granted that we will too.
But there has been a huge shift in the public mind on these things. We have apparently reached such a state of collective prurience that according that Sky News poll, 4 out of 5 of us are opposed to the courts protecting the right of individuals to keep their sex lives private. But why? What, for instance, does the now famous affair of Sir Fred Goodwin have to do with us? What is the ‘public interest’ in our knowing that it happened? There is none at all. I have heard it argued, surely ludicrously, that it may have rendered him (presumably in a state of advanced erotic stupor) inattentive to his duties as Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland. But this is absurd; the downfall of the RBS was brought about by his greed and faulty financial judgment, not his personal life—the self-righteous comments of some papers about which are simply nauseating. Consider the following, from The Daily Mail:
“What is truly appalling…. is the way we are belatedly learning about Sir Fred’s [extra-marital affair]: it is not because the judge who originally granted the injunction came to his senses, recognised the public interest and lifted the gagging order.
“Rather a Lib Dem peer and an MP, both shocked to discover what was being kept secret, used Parliamentary privilege first to reveal that Sir Fred had an injunction then, yesterday, disclose most of its contents.
“Given the absurdity of this situation, the Mail and other newspapers went to the High Court to request the injunction be lifted, so the full truth could be known.
“Sir Fred, with little left to lose, consented. Yet the courts — which have used Labour’s Human Rights Act to create a backdoor privacy law — last night still refused to allow us to name his mistress.”
This is ludicrous, of course; there is no “public interest”; and the courts have created no “backdoor privacy law”: it is Parliament which enacted that privacy is a human right. The judges have a duty to enforce that. And the name of his mistress is no business of ours, any more than Sir Fred’s adulterous behaviour was. We have a right to know about his greed and faulty judgment, for that led to his failure as a banker and to the burden laid on us as taxpayers as a result: about his concupiscence, we had no right to be told anything whatever. I am sorry that we were. And I am even sorrier to be living in a society where, apparently, so few people agree with me.