Newspapers have no claim to the moral high ground
The super-injunctions debate: money rather than high principle is at stake here
When asked which side he wanted to win the Iran-Iraq war, Henry Kissinger is said to have replied that it was a pity they could not both lose. Watching the current spat between the judiciary and the press over super-injunctions, one knows how he felt.
Take the judges first: on the back of the Human Rights Act they have established a privacy law which appears to work mainly for rich male philanderers. Yet at the same time the judges seem blithely unaware that the spread of the internet and Facebook means their writ no longer runs in many parts of the media. Result: not only do their lordships look high-handed, but hopelessly out of touch as well.
Then take the press: just a few weeks ago we were all professing shock at the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Now, exposing the private goings-on of celebrities is suddenly a matter of high constitutional principle.
In reality phone hacking and super-injunctions are two sides of the same coin. The business model of the tabloid press depends on aggressive intrusion into the lives of celebrities. Principles are at stake here, but let's not forget that money is too - and lots of it.
When the Human Rights Act was passed, MPs were warned that the judges would develop a law on privacy unless Parliament pre-empted them. But politicians of all parties preferred to steer clear, and until recently that was the way the press liked it too. It was only when, left to their own devices, the judges hardened their line, that the newspapers began to look to politicians and public opinion for deliverance.
Nevertheless, given just how powerful both protagonists are, it was still a surprise when David Cameron said last week that Parliament might step between them. The Commons is due to consider the law on libel soon, so the opportunity to include privacy is there. And the Prime Minister, of course, has close ties with News International, the leading tabloid publisher.
Super-injunctions have also been used to suppress more important matters than extra-marital flings, so they could certainly do with examination. But with Parliament only just recovering from the expenses scandal this is hardly the best moment for it to claim the high ground over privacy. The papers may now be calling for MPs to become involved, but once they do the tabloids, in particular, could easily turn against them.
Bitter experience has conditioned MPs to be nervous of the press, not to say scared; don't be surprised, therefore, if they decide to leave the tabloids and the judges to fight it out. That way there will be no skin off the politicians' noses, even if both sides end up losing. ·
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