In praise of gossip: The superinjunctions are based on a flawed morality

The Human Rights Act is being interpreted to ban people gossiping. This is madness, writes Thomas McMahon

Ryan Giggs: the focus of the latest scandal
Thomas McMahon
On 2 June 2011 09:14

Many commentators have been struggling to draw a line between politicians and bankers seeking super-injunctions, and so-called "celebrities" such as footballers and actors. The argument runs that celebrities should be able to expect privacy as they aren’t public figures in the same way that those involved in running society are – they are simply people who have had a bit of success, as Hugh Grant put it.

This is utter nonsense. Hugh Grant’s success has come as much from his public image as it has from his performances on screen. His high-profile relationship with Jemima Khan kept his name in the papers and reassured casting directors that his name could draw crowds.

He created an image of himself as someone who was comfortable in upper-class society, conducive to the parts he was playing. And his credibility as a bumbling, genteel English fool was dealt an enormous blow by his soliciting of oral sex from a prostitute in Los Angeles. As I see things, Hugh Grant wants legal license to craft his public image so as to prevent mention of anything that might get in the way of him making money.

Footballers also trade on their public image. The image that footballers project, affects people’s willingness to follow them and spend their money on tickets, TV subscriptions and shirts. Many people find the behaviour of certain players disgusting, both on and off the pitch.

And those who think that phenomena such as the "roasting" of silly drunk girls are driven by the huge amounts of money given to immature young men are far less likely to want to pay for tickets or subscriptions which will put more money in their pockets. They are also likely to agitate for reforms to the structure of the game designed to curb the power of money; such as salary caps, which are deeply unpopular with players’ agents, for obvious reasons.

There are also personal deals involved that depend on the individual’s image directly. Stars such as Ryan Giggs, who advertised cars, make a great deal of money from adverts. His ex-team-mate David Beckham has made a fortune advertising clothes and perfume amongst other products. Some of those who object to adultery would certainly change their attitude to buying products endorsed by Beckham if they discovered he was guilty of it. In fact, he was indeed accused of adultery a few years ago. He denied the charge, and he has weathered the controversy, the public being allowed to make their mind up about him and coming down more or less in his favour.

In the same way, if the inhabitants of a village discover that the local shopkeeper’s wife has left him because he has been having an affair with the priest they are less likely to buy from him and less likely to go to the local church. The shopkeeper has no right to demand that the locals refrain from telling each other how badly he’s behaved, whether it ruins his business or not. The refusal to patronise a person or business we object to ethically is a natural expression of our moral nature, and something that deserves to be protected by law.

Where we draw the line differs in many cases, but for all of us what we regard as wrong is deeply important to us. It defines our sense of what we are and what humanity is. We all need a "right" not to give money or other material support to those we regard as immoral.

Article eight of the Human Rights Act – a transposition of the European Convention on Human Rights – disregards all such considerations. If the allegation is deemed by a judge to be a private matter then you have no right to know about it, no right to tell people about it, and, therefore, no right to be informed enough to make considered decisions on how you relate to it. It is an attempt to make gossip illegal, an utterly stupid and ultimately doomed enterprise.

How typical of the Archbishop of Canterbury to propose just that. In an interview at the Hay Festival he declared that people must be protected from the "miasma of gossip". “If people behaved morally there would be no need for super-injunctions,” he continued. In other words, Williams thinks that disapproving of other people’s appalling actions and urging others to disapprove too is as bad as the appalling actions themselves: it should be illegal to publicly protest someone’s immorality.

The argument of the Archbishop and of the judges is that protecting the personal life of the transgressor is more important than any public good that comes from discussing his transgressions. It is absolutely not. By discussing other people’s immorality we not only protect the values we hold dear by defending or attacking the accused, but we define them by testing them against each other and against the events that have sparked the gossip.

Gossip is an essential part of our moral lives, and if a right to a private life means a "right" to hide our immorality from opprobrium and deny society a chance to judge us, then we should have no such "right" at all, and article eight of the Human Rights Act should be struck out.

Thomas McMahon is a freelance writer based in Rome. He has written for Spiked Online, Chronicles and the Spectator

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