George Carey Attacks Mosley Privacy Victory

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, writes in UK tabloid the News of the World concerning Max Mosley’s recent court victory after the newspaper revealed details of his sado-masochistic orgies:

A DANGEROUS precedent has been set this week in the victory of Max Mosley over the press. The first major victim is Free Speech itself. Without public debate or democratic scrutiny the courts have created a wholly new privacy law. In itself that’s bad enough.

…In the past a public figure has known that scandalous and immoral behaviour carries serious consequences for his or her public profile, reputation and job. Today it is possible to both have your cake AND to eat it.

But a case can be clearly made for a direct link between private behaviour and public conduct. If a politician, a judge, a bishop or any public figure cannot keep their promises to wife, husband, etc, how can they be trusted to honour pledges to their constituencies and people they serve?

…The new High Court ruling prevents press investigations into matters of clear public interest. It needlessly shackles the press and removes the right of the public to make informed moral judgements.

We can take issue with a couple of points here: the idea that the News of the World can help the public to make “informed moral judgements” is a laughable one, and most people would hopefully take the sensible view that a private sexual failing does not mean that a person generally untrustworthy: in Mosley’s case, his character will probably be judged in relation to the exploitative and cruel nature of his activities, rather than for their extra-marital status (of course, simple affairs might raise the issue of hypocrisy – as in the case of clergy or “family values” politicians – and usually there is ridicule: see Paddy “Pantsdown” Ashdown and Paul “Spanker” Johnson).

Martin Jacques put the view supporting Mosley’s right to privacy in the Guardian’s Comment is Free in June:

The idea that it is somehow in the public interest that newspapers have the right to invade an individual’s private life in this way and effectively seek to destroy them is unacceptable. There is no public interest whatsoever, but it is certainly in the interests of a tabloid newspaper, giving it the power to break and humiliate individuals by appealing to the public’s worst voyeuristic instincts, all in the cause of sales. What one does in private should remain private, providing it does not contravene the law.

One recalls Adorno’s views on “the attitude of snooping”, which he saw as “closely akin to fascism”.

However, it seems to me, in agreement with Carey, that whether something is “in the public interest” is not the business of judges, and if we find a newspaper to be repellently intrusive we can simply opt to ignore it; free speech should be denied just because some public “instincts” are unattractive. I wrote more about the subject of privacy and free speech here, noting some interesting hypothetical examples raised by (cough) Sean Gabb.

The judge who awarded Mosley £60,000 is Mr Justice Eady, who has also found for Saudi billionaires in UK libel actions. According to Private Eye (1194) magazine, Eady “has found against reporters so often that the law lord Lord Hoffman slapped him down for being ‘hostile’ to responsible journalism in the public interest”. George Carey, in contrast, has been supportive of free speech: despite being an evangelical he apparently “loved” the Life of Brian and in 2005 he called for the repealing of blasphemy laws.

Mosley is now planning a raft of libel actions in the UK and Europe over the claim that his orgies had “Nazi” overtones, rather than simply “German prison” themes. How much exactly will that difference in damage to reputation be worth?