Interview: Bob Satchwell

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, on free speech and privacy.

Tessa Mayes

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Bob Satchwell’s comments form part of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.

Those who win privacy cases should be re-named lottery winners of the year, just like those who win libel cases.

It seems that some have a kind of blood lust about privacy and the papers. They don’t really have a case but they think the papers are rich and the law might make them hand over some of their cash.

The answer to the question ‘Should celebrities always have their privacy protected?’ of course has to be ‘No’. However, under the Editors’ Code of Practice policed by the Press Complaints Commission, celebrities have precisely the same rights as everyone else and are entitled to their privacy. But there are important caveats especially for politicians, pop stars and other famous people.

When we re-wrote the code after the death of Princess Diana, we had to come up with a workable definition of privacy that could be used. Not everybody thought our definition was as precise as it should be but it is workable. People, however famous, are entitled to their privacy so long as they don’t expect it in London’s hottest night spot or a beach in the south of France. They are places where people go to see and be seen, not for privacy.

For anyone who believes in having a watchful and vociferous media – and that should be anyone in a democracy – there is a problem in having a privacy law. French media organisations don’t operate in the same way as ours because the press is subservient. They’re as bad as the British 70 years ago when the press did not talk about the “constitutional crisis” that was supposed to be happening at the time. Politicians and newspapers knew about Edward and Mrs Simpson. The people who didn’t know about it were the public – the people that a constitution is supposed to protect. The French media still don’t publish all that they should because of that subservience and they are wary of court actions for privacy. Celebrities hide behind the privacy law.

In the UK there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the Human Rights Act. It is supposed to protect the people against an over-bearing state. It’s not to protect celebrities who are rich and powerful, but the ‘little’ people. Sometimes celebrities are prepared to accept publicity when it suits them or come up with stories when they need cash. People are also trying to use privacy rights to protect their commercial deals, although fortunately the courts seem to be seeing through this…let’s hope that they are.

There is no privacy in iniquity and there should be no privacy when celebrities try to manipulate the media for their own benefit.

The Human Rights Act is a welcome codification of the law on free expression and privacy but it’s not, in my view, a huge change in terms of UK law. The introduction of the Act sounds as though it will cause substantial changes because, in effect, it is the European Convention on Human Rights being taken in to English and Scottish law. However, the ECHR was written by mainly British judges and lawyers after the Second World War. It was designed to protect against totalitarian states, to protect people against Hitler or Stalin. It was never designed to protect people against each other or, therefore, the media.

The ethos of Article 10 concerns the importance of free expression and a free media in a democratic society. That’s not to say Article 8 on the right to privacy isn’t just as important. Everyone accepts that people, famous or ordinary, have a right to privacy. Many of the clauses concerning privacy and invasions of privacy in the Newspaper and Magazine Editors’ Code and the codes governing radio and television follow almost slavishly the ECHR in asserting that everyone has a right to privacy.

Where the concern comes is when organisations and individuals seek to use the Act against legitimate reporting. The police withhold information about a crime or a road accident or other public incident arguing that there is a right to privacy. Our argument is that an incident that happens in a public place, such as in the case of a road accident, involves the expenditure of public money. The public has a right to know about it.

Of course people hold dear their right to privacy – newspaper editors guard their privacy as much as anyone. But the problem is that if you had a privacy law you would lose the ability to expose those people who are involved in crime and unethical practices. People would misuse it.

The PCC’s voluntary Code of Practice is far better because all editors sign up to it. It means that they’re more likely to try and protect legitimate privacy, although admittedly some don’t try hard enough. They are more likely to do this voluntarily than if it is imposed upon them.

There is no evidence over the last 10 years that it hasn’t worked. Quite the opposite is true. The code and the PCC have changed the nature of tabloid journalism. Complaints are not dealt with over 18 months culminating in a court case but much faster, and by the common sense judgements of experienced journalists and editors – often in competition with the journalist being accused of privacy invasion – and by a majority of lay members.

Finally, if the papers were emasculated by a privacy law, they would become bland and boring. That means circulations would plummet. We would finish up with a less diverse press, not a better one. Given all we have heard about the way celebrities manipulate the papers, and recognising the part that a free, unfettered pres should play in a democracy, whose interest would that serve?

And remember this: by attacking the tabloids you’re not bruising Rupert Murdoch’s ego (owner, News International) or Mr Morgan’s ego (Piers Morgan, editor, The Mirror). You are patronising the millions of people who read the papers every day.

Bob Satchwell is executive director of the Society of Editors. The Society represents more than 450 members in national and regional newspapers, broadcasting, magazines, new media, media education and media law. It is a campaigning organisation on issues such as press freedom, media freedom and the right to know. The Society is concerned with resisting restrictions on the ability of the media to report and on standards of journalism.

This is an extract of a speech given at the Sugar Reef nightclub debate ‘Leave Me Alone (I’m famous) – should celebrities always have their privacy protected?’ on 30 October 2001 organised by The LIRE media group, the Society of Editors, The Media Society and The LSE media group.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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