Editors Protest Too Much about Threat of Privacy Law; MEDIA ANALYSIS

Article excerpt

Byline: ?Roy Greenslade

IT SEEMS as though no news story is breaking at present without newspapers transforming it into an opportunity to raise the alarm about the perils of privacy.

Take the arrest in New York of the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, on charges of attempting to rape a chambermaid, sexual assault and forcible confinement.

It is being said by some British journalists that his true nature has been concealed by French privacy laws. If only we had known the truth then... Then what? Although it is now being said to have been common knowledge among the French political and media elite that DSK, as he is known, was a philanderer, he has never previously been charged with any sexual offence.

It is true that a French journalist, who also happens to be the god-daughter of DSK's second wife, has suddenly alleged that he sexually assaulted her 10 years ago -- but she was not prevented from going to the police because of a privacy law.

Indeed, her mother has revealed that the only reason she did not press charges at the time was because, at that early stage of her journalistic career, she did not want to be "defined by the story" of being attacked by a senior politician.

So, to return to the point: if we have known -- or, at least, known the rumours about DSK, what would have been the likely effect? In a British context, I guess the popular press would have been poking into his private life, especially given his Leftwing background and more recent "soft Left" political leanings. That might well have prevented him becoming managing director of the IMF, but to what avail? Of course, I have no idea whether DSK is guilty of the current charges in the US, nor whether the accusations by the female journalist have any credence. But I cannot see the relevance of claims that he has been unduly "protected" by privacy legislation.

One news story that most certainly hasn't been adduced as proof that individual privacy is being overprotected is that involving the Liberal-Democrat cabinet minister Chris Huhne.

Again, I have no idea about the validity of allegations that he pressured his ex-wife into accepting his driving licence penalty points.

But I can read day by day all sorts of material that clearly intrudes into Huhne's private life and, in my humble journalistic view, that's just as it should be. There is an obvious public interest reason to know whether a minister of the Crown broke the law.

Meanwhile, as these stories play out, the privacy debate goes on apace, with at least one bizarre twist. A lawyer acting for a footballer, who has been granted a gagging order, has applied to a judge for the right to search through News International's emails following a claim on radio by The Sun's columnist, and former editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, that he sometimes passes on to emailers the names of people who have obtained injunctions.

I sincerely hope that this request fails. Kelvin was surely joking, and it would be wrong to treat it as a serious breach of the order. More pertinently, there appears to be a growing concern that the privacy campaign by certain newspaper editors needs to be addressed with some kind of positive action. 'Papers already their right to privacy by Complaints That was the burden of a leading article in yesterday's Financial Times, which tried to navigate a safe passage between the Scylla of a press free-for-all and the Charybdis of tighter legal restraints on freedom of expression. …