Hypocrisy on Both Sides Is Laid Bare in Privacy Debate

Article excerpt

AN Irish barrister speaking at a Dublin conference last weekend referred to privacy as "the impossible right". Max Mosley would certainly know what he meant. Once your deepest, darkest secret is revealed to the public, there is no recompense -- such as the jailing of an editor, perhaps, or unlimited damages -- that would make any difference.

Doubtless, the TV broadcasters Andrew Marr and Dermot Murnaghan are reflecting on that today too. In separate incidents, they were pictured in two Sunday newspapers kissing women who were not their wives. Then a daily paper put the pictures up online, and it hardly needs saying nowadays that they were soon to be found all over the net.

Similarly, a couple of weeks ago, Prince Harry suffered from the embarrassment of his naked high jinks being revealed, first on US websites and -- after a day or so of reflection following a Palace request to Britain's national papers not to publish -- on The Sun's front page.

In every case, editors offered a publicinterest justification for what were clear intrusions into privacy. All were said to be role models who, because they fell short in private of the standards they supposedly exhibit in public, deserved to be exposed.

In the Marr and Murnaghan cases, incidentally, they were covertly caught on camera in places where, to quote the editors' code of practice, they could not reasonably expect to guarantee their privacy.

Given that Lord Justice Leveson is currently writing a report about newspaper behaviour and a reformed system of press regulation, the timing of publication could not be more sensitive.

It appears months of apparent restraint by tabloid editors are over.

But the episode does again offer an opportunity to explore the apparent insolubility of two linked concepts -- privacy and public interest. The problem is that both are fluid and have proved impossible to define with the kind of rigour that could result in hard and fast legislation.

One man's invasion of privacy is another man's right to know. Just to confuse matters, experience suggests that there is no consistency when people are asked to decide one way or the other on individual cases. Judges, who treat every case on its merits, also seem to reach contradictory decisions. …