3 October 2009

Private life, public life

Alice Miles is a breezy columnist for the Times and one of a number who are fortunate in being able to turn their private life into copy, like Liz Jones in the Daily Mail (Jones' Mail on Sunday diary pieces are sadly irresistible).

Miles' opinion of the NHS, she wrote in 2006, was that some doctors are "arrogant and stroppy," an observation sharply resented by some in the profession. Perhaps this judgment was coloured by her personal experience during pregnancy, for she returned to this theme a year later in a piece titled "Natural birth! Hello? This is the 21st century": "... I remember when I told my very nice and until then helpful midwife that I was going to have a Caesarean (I, fortunately, had a choice). I might as well have said that after careful thought I had decided I would feed my baby heroin. When she had recovered sufficiently from the shock, Maureen, a large, broad-hipped woman and mother of about eight, suggested I might have been swayed by Posh Spice: “A lot of women want to follow their favourite celebrity.” Then she asked whether I was doing it at my husband’s request to keep myself perfect for him “down there”. " And then last year, she had a nice holiday in Madeira (pictured with her daughter in the article), which if it wasn't paid for by her paper, at least gave her the material to earn her salary. More, we don't know, unless and until she announces it.

You see, the Fourth Estate want to earn money talking about themselves at some times, yet preserve their privacy when it suits them. To dare to hoist them with their own interrogatory petard is treated almost as a sort of lèse majesté. When did journalists become, I don't know, not just celebrities, but a kind of minor royalty? Is it because the Left has been consistently undermining the Royal Family, so that a replacement has to be found?

At any rate, journalists can become quite chevalier in the exercise of their prerogatives. Last year, the former editor of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams, commented on Andrew Marr's use of a court injunction to suppress not only certain information about his private life, but also the very fact of his having obtained a court injunction to that effect (the magazine successfully defied the second part of that attempt).

The battle for press freedom continues: in this week's print edition of PE, the lead article is reduced to muttering, "Last month a certain institution obtained a high court injunction to prevent a certain newspaper from publishing a certain document. More than that we cannot say; to do so is fraught with danger." The article goes on to remind us of the debt we owe to the 18th century rake, wit and publisher John Wilkes, and reflects that "prior restraint" is rolling back the tide of Liberty.

I don't think this is a minor matter: I fear that we are witnessing the seemingly unstoppable reconstruction of aristocracy in all its worst aspects, on both sides of the Atlantic. And even their flappers are dressing themselves in the livery and rights of the Imperial Court.

Ironically, Marr himself recently interviewed the new owner of the London Evening Standard, Alexandre Lebedev, who in response to suggestions that the latter might have problems with Putin said, "I think the only right I'm defending is the freedom of speech and of course I am using to a certain extent my limited resources in actually supporting the freedom of information and freedom of press." Exactly one year earlier, Marr was also questioning Russians Gary Kasparov and Dmitry Peskov about press freedom in Russia. Following Marr's interview with Gordon Brown, in which he controversially asked the Prime Minster not only about his blindness but about rumours of drug treatment, he defended his right to ask such questions.

In August last year, Mazher Mahmood told Emily Maitlis on Marr's own show, "... what's happening is that a privacy law is creeping into Britain through the back door. Investigative journalism is slowly being strangled. The Max Mosley case is testament to that if it were needed."

Back in 1997, in his fine tribute to the late Ruth Picardie, Marr wrote, "She asked awkward, embarrassing questions, including about herself, and didn't flinch from nasty answers. And embarrassing questions are good, the lifeblood of journalism. Without them, we are duller, stupider bipeds.

These Ruth Picardie qualities are the opposite of what our accountancy- dominated culture, and indeed some politicians, seem to want journalists to be - obedient, emotionally-controlled and humble little information- processors with no life outside the profession, reliably mincing factoids into munchable, pain-free, sesame-coated pieces. And Hell, where's the pleasure in that? You might as well write a novel."

When powerful people - and, backed by the judges that at other times they may criticise, journalists are powerful - are allowed to determine the limits to liberty, it is unreasonable for us to expect it to retain its character. These quasi-liberal censors are like Douglas Adams' stupid philosophers Broomfondle and Magicthighs, who "demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!" Understandably seeking to prevent their own social embarrassment, they set the precedent for other, potentially wicked and dictatorial people to exploit for worse ends.

And it's not slow in coming. Alastair Campbell, himself a former journalist for the Daily Mirror and Today, earned a reputation as a fearsome handler of the Press when he became Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman. As a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, he knows the tricks of the journalists' trade, but his communication sources also yield him plenty of ammunition to keep the scribblers' heads down when he wants to; and the threat to Marr, via Campbell's blog, came swiftly:

"It was sad to see Marr, perhaps with an eye to a few Monday morning cuttings, feel that he had to raise blogosphere rumours about Gordon going blind, or being on heavy medication of some sort. I know it will give him the passing satisfaction of pats on the back from journos … But it was low stuff. I'm sure Andrew would agree that everyone has certain areas of their life that they'd prefer not to be asked about live on TV."

That's how it works, and that's why people in Mr Marr's position need to tell the truth and shame the devil, for otherwise the devil will know how to build on the weakness.

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