Interview: Toby Young
Toby Young, author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, on free speech and privacy.
Toby Young’s comments form part of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.
As a journalist, working on the coalface of celebrity journalism, I know that celebrities use several tacit methods to protect their privacy without resorting to the law.
For example, I was interviewing Claudia Schiffer, the model and actress, for a cover story and at the conclusion of the interview I said, ‘Claudia, will you have dinner with me?’ She said, ‘I’d love to but I’ve got to go back to the office and go through all the articles that have been written about me recently which I have copy approval over.’ That made me stop and think.
‘Claudia,’ I said, ‘you haven’t been given copy approval over the article I’m writing have you?’ ‘Of course,’ she replied. I called the office and my editor then told me that she had done a deal with Claudia’s publicist guaranteeing her copy approval of all the photos and the quotes. She could control absolutely everything that I was going to write.
Another example was when I was sent to interview the actor Nathan Lane for Vanity Fair. Now Nathan Lane’s whole persona is that of a screaming homosexual and yet, looking through the cuts beforehand, I noticed that he’d never been asked straight out whether he was gay.
So I decided to raise the subject during the course of the interview. I got off to a really bad start by asking him if he was Jewish. He said, ‘Yaas, Yaas, what of it? move on, move on, next question…’ Then, I said, ‘You played Robin Williams’s girlfriend in The Birdcage, you did the voice over for Timon in the The Lion King, generally considered Disney’s first-ever gay animated character – are you, in fact, gay?’ His jaw hit the floor and then he just got up and walked off. His publicist, who was present during the interview, then said to me, ‘Mr Young, you’re making Mr Lane uncomfortable. Will you please leave?’
When I got back to the office, the editor had clearly been called up by the publicist and given a flea in his ear because he immediately hauled me in and said, ‘Toby, you can’t ask Hollywood celebrities whether they’re Jewish or gay. In future, just assume they’re all Jewish and all gay, okay?’
It’s not just celebrities that seek copy approval or sue journalists. Other journalists are willing to sue journalists too. For example, when I was launching ‘The Modern Review’ we snuck in to the offices of The European one night and used their production facilities to produce a camera-ready copy to take down to our printers. Robert Maxwell found out and, in addition to suing me personally for damages, he tried to persuade the Crown Prosecution Service to bring a case against me for trespass.
The most serious case I’ve been involved with was when Harold Evans, the former editor of The Times and The Sunday Times, tried to sue me after I wrote a piece in the Spectator saying that his departure from Random House, the American publishing firm he left in 1997, was less than voluntary. He threatened to sue me personally for libel unless I gave a written undertaking that I would never write anything about him or his wife Tina Brown ever again. This is a journalist who presents himself as a champion of free speech! I refused to sign the document he wanted and eventually he backed down.
If people are encouraged to think they can sue journalists under a privacy law then journalists like me are going to become even more restricted than we already are. I don’t think celebrities or public figures need protecting from journalists–journalists need protecting from them!
Toby Young is the theatre critic of the Spectator and author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, an account of the five years he spent working as a journalist in New York.
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.
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