In defence of the right to tittle-tattle

Lord Triesman’s punishment for something he said behind closed doors shows that privacy counts for sweet FA today.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics

It’s time to address those middle-aged men stuffed into their ample blazers down at England’s Football Association headquarters with a hard truth: no matter how glamorous football has become, you are not glamorous. Those young men who actually play professional football, with the hair and the cars and the beautiful girlfriends – they’re the glamorous ones. They are the ones that boys want to be and girls want to go out with. But you – and I know this is hard to hear – are not objects of even a squeamish desire. No boy grows up dreaming of being an FA administrator (unless they’ve been bullied). And no girl grows up dreaming of being seduced by a sixtysomething man with an FA stationery set (unless they collect stationery).

That said, no matter how delusional one may deem 66-year-old Lord Triesman, did he really deserve to lose his job as FA chairman and head of England’s 2018 World Cup bid over a few things he said entirely in private to a thirtysomething woman he probably thought was dead impressed? After all, if public figures can’t make a fool of themselves in private moments, then when can they make fools of themselves? Given the media-driven outrage over the weekend, it seems the answer is: ‘Never’.

So what did Triesman say to the younger woman that was so heinous? He said there was ‘some evidence’ that the Spanish football authorities are looking to bribe Russian referees ahead of next month’s World Cup. In return, he explained, Spain would drop out of the race to stage the 2018 World Cup: ‘My assumption is that the Latin Americans, although they’ve not said so, will vote for Spain. And if Spain drop out, because Spain are looking for help from the Russians to help bribe the referees in the World Cup, their votes may then switch [to Russia].’ Conspiratorial? Yes. Half-baked? Yes. Said in public in his role as head of England’s own attempt to win the staging rights for the 2018 World Cup? Absolutely not. He spun this tale of Spanish cheating and Russian gerrymandering to someone with whom he foolishly thought he was intimate. What he did not reckon on was that the woman was recording the conversation and planned to sell it to a newspaper.

After handing in his resignation on Sunday evening, Triesman’s hurt was clear: ‘A private conversation with someone whom I thought to be a friend was taped without my knowledge and passed to a national newspaper… In that conversation I commented on speculation circulating about conspiracies around the world. Those comments were never intended to be taken seriously, as indeed is the case with many private conversations.’ Despite his folly – that is, trusting a woman who has a confessional blog called ‘Sex, Love and OCD’ – how can someone be publicly held to account for what they thought was a private conversation? As he himself says, the comments were never intended to be taken seriously – as is the nature of many private conversations.

Triesman’s defence appeals to our own experiences. Everyone knows there are things we say to friends, to people we are close to, which we would rather other people didn’t hear. Likewise, there are plenty of things we may say in jest, in anger, and, yes, even in flirtation, that we would not want to be a matter of public record. The decision as to what we want to be held publicly accountable for, and what not, we take to be ours. Yet this is the dangerous implication of the Triesman affair: that decision is removed. Instead, we can say nothing in private that we would not be prepared to make public. This transforms the nature of the private interaction, giving it an ‘as if’ quality. You would talk ‘as if’ everything you say could become a public statement, ‘as if’ every half-formed thought, every half-cocked musing was meant not just for the person you were addressing, but also for the public sphere as a whole. In effect, there would be no private sphere. It would always be potentially public and therefore subject to certain rules.

Triesman’s fall at the hands of his own private utterance is far from unique today. Too often, public figures, from celebrities to politicians, have been caught out by a private remark made public – and too infrequently is their privacy defended. So while some observers have rightly attacked the treatment of Triesman, when it came, for instance, to ballroom dancer Anton du Beke making his ‘Paki’ comment in private to his dance partner, few thought it an assault on privacy that he was publicly pilloried. Yet privacy, like freedom of speech, is not a selective right to be dished out to the right-thinking, but withheld from the wrong. It is universal, or it is nothing.

While the freedom to behave as one sees fit in private has taken quite a buffeting as a result of the Triesman affair, too often those attacking the Mail on Sunday’s decision to publish the story give the freedom of the press an equally forceful kicking. There seems to be a belief that because the FA is trying to bring the 2018 tournament to England, all criticism, all investigative journalism, must be suspended. Loose talk costs World Cup staging rights, goes the wartime rationale. ‘Why did the Mail on Sunday have to destroy our bid?’, wrote one messageboard contributor. Another was equally outraged: ‘A very MASSIVE congratulation to the Mail On Sunday, for utterly ruining our bid for the 2018 World Cup.’ David Bond at the BBC writes approvingly of the anger directed at the Mail on Sunday: ‘I am told that at least one other newspaper was offered the story and turned it down [because it might derail the bid]’, he writes.

The annoyance is understandable, of course. I’d also love to see the World Cup in the UK. But a football tournament is not enough to justify the suspension of the press’s freedom to speak truth to power, or, in this case, have a pop at the rather less than potent FA. After all, the fact that the press is obsessed with exposing the private folly of public figures is hardly the press’s own fault. Public figures, especially the petty moralisers at the FA, have for too long made private conduct a matter of public importance, a policy to which womanising John Terry, now the ex-England captain as a result of his philandering, can readily testify. If you don’t want your own private life raked over, Terry could argue, refrain from publicising others’ private lives.

Anyway, it is doubtful that England’s opportunity to stage the World Cup has been killed by this Carry On Up the FA. As Saturday’s Cup Final demonstrated, Wembley’s peat bog of a pitch had probably already sunk our hopes.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Duleep Allirajah called for John Terry to be allowed to keep the arm band. Norman Lewis looked at privacy in the Age of Facebook. Rob Killick analysed the online threats to privacy. Josie Appleton wanted to bring back privacy. Tessa Mayes argued we need privacy and a free press. Or read more at spiked issue Privacy.

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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Topics Politics

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