Interview: Lauren Booth

Lauren Booth, columnist, New Statesman, on free speech and privacy.

Tessa Mayes

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

As a journalist I work within the media and particularly for the press. But as the half sister of Cherie Booth, I still find myself cast, from time to time, in the role of ‘celebrity sister of….’ At these times, I have an idea what the term ‘victim of the press’ can mean.

So, I have an interest in both sides of the equation: what is privacy and can you invade your own?

Most of the self-imposed invasions we talk about appear via the glossy pages of Hello! and OK! magazines. How could she sell her wedding pictures?, gasp tabloid editors sneeringly, at shots of a soap star walking down the aisle. How dare he let pictures be taken of his newborn baby tut the broadsheets, if a singer allows the cameras to a baby’s christening?

But in reality what’s the point of having a ‘secretive’ wedding, of making or even trying to make a ‘secretive’ personal announcement when you are considered to be a celebrity?

Knowing that photos will be fought over by photographers and printed without your blessing quickly focuses the mind to the realities of fame. What happens in these cases is a brisk business deal takes place that (to their fury) normally excludes the press pack. Two photographers from Hello! magazine took the photos of my own wedding. They were very professional, very discreet, as if we were paying them in fact. A wedding, like a christening, is a public event, something to be proud of and share with the world. That’s what my husband and I did – and we got a very nice, complementary honeymoon thrown in!

The problems on both side of the equation really begin when moments that people feel are truly personal suddenly become frontpage news. When tabloids in particular make drastic changes to the lives and relationships of their celebrity ‘target’.

When this happens what hope of sympathy or understanding does the victim have? I once asked Piers Morgan this: ‘Piers, if you found something out about me, something very personal would you print it?’ Naively I had imagined that perhaps as we had met and worked in the same industry he would hold back. His reply was typical: ‘Of course I’d print it Lauren, big, on the front page. But the difference for you would be that I’d call you first to get your side of the story.’ He was offering me the chance to ‘spike’ this imaginary story on the grounds that it would appear anyway.

Celebrities get dragged into a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. You’re damned at this stage to have an unsympathetic hack write your story if you don’t say anything. If you do give an interview to the opposing tabloid, you become an enemy to all the others and a hypocrite to boot. Naomi Campbell’s case against the Mirror was a classic. Photographs were taken of her walking away from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. However unpleasant or unsympathetic she may be as a public figure, that moment was and should have remained entirely her own. The next day it was splashed across the Mirror.

In their defence, editors following the story say ‘well, just a week later she was in a celebrity magazine blubbing about “my drugs hell”’. They say she invaded her own privacy. But did she? Suddenly she was talked about as someone with no right to privacy because she had firstly denied taking drugs and then sold her story. But in between times her personal battle, tragedy or whatever you call it had been told to the world via an illicitly taken photograph.

Once, I was on a plane with a tabloid photographer. He had taken long lens pictures of Jemima and Imran Khan having sex on their honeymoon, which he kept on his laptop and showed to everyone within eyeshot. I don’t think they actually appeared in print, maybe because one of them was wearing a hat at the time! But they are available on newspaper picture desks worldwide. We may laugh, but that’s a serious intrusion of a private moment. Celebrities may be pampered pains in the arse, but to consider their emotional lives and those of their families as no more than collateral damage in a circulation war is offensive.

Years ago my dad was involved in a serious fire. The day after two men arrived at my door, rang my bell and said ‘your father’s dead, what do you think about that?’ And, I gave an account, as an 11-year old, in tears, of how devastated I was, that my dad had died. Then they said, ‘He’s not really dead – but tell us about his relationship with your mother’.

Whatever parts of your life you may open to magazines such as OK!, everyone has a right to a certain amount of privacy. When an interview with a magazine about your new home leads to gross intrusions from the press into your personal life, it’s akin to saying a rape victim was ‘asking for it’ because she was wearing a short skirt.

Although pictures of the Khans didn’t make it in to the press, Radio 1 dj Sara Cox’s pictures on her honeymoon did. In return for (wrongly) embarrassing her in the Sunday People and making nude shots of her forever available to anyone via the internet, the apology she received ran to a couple of lines, saying: ‘We messed up a bit, we didn’t do the right thing. Sorry.’ It’s not good enough.

If those in the media – some incredibly intelligent – can’t work out a code that prevents seedy, offensive intrusions from appearing but protects undercover revelations that are both compelling and of genuine national interest, it’s only because they’re not trying hard enough.

Lauren Booth is a columnist for the New Statesman.

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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