Bozza, bonking and the public interest
Why should three men in wigs get to decide whether or not us plebs can read about Boris's sexual shenanigans?
Yesterday, three appeal court judges decided that it was okay for us, ‘the public’, to know that London mayor Boris Johnson, the blustering blonde many swivel-eyed loons tip as a potential prime minister, is also a randy, prophylactic-averse shagger.
We know this because Helen Mcintyre, a one-time fling of Johnson’s in the late 2000s, had been trying to persuade the Court of Appeal that details of her affair with Bozza, and the resulting ‘love child’, should be the subject of a press injunction (despite the fact that the details are already out there in print and digital). Still, her case centred on the claim that her daughter’s paternity was ‘exceptionally sensitive and delicate’ and the child would therefore be devastated to learn who her father was in the national press. (It is likely, of course, that the child would simply be devastated to learn who her father was.)
Mcintyre’s chief antagonists, the Daily Mail, which first ran with the story in July 2010, and its publishers, Associated Newspapers, understandably disagreed with Mcintyre. They claimed that the child-bearing infidelities of a figure occupying an important elected role are matters of public interest. And, as it turned out, the appeal court judges concurred: ‘The core information in this story, namely that the father had an adulterous affair with the mother, deceiving both his wife and the mother’s partner and that the claimant, born about nine months later, was likely to be the father’s child, was a public interest matter which the electorate was entitled to know when considering his fitness for high public office.’
What is interesting here is not the news of Johnson’s shaggy shenanigans. From his editorship at the Spectator, or the ‘Sextator’ as it was then known, to his tryst, sans French Lettres, with randy socialite Petronella Wyatt, the big blustering bluffer has long been famed for his extramarital swordsmanship. The fact that we are now officially aware of a few more notches on the Bozza bed post, plus a few more childcare bills in the Bozza postbox, merely fleshes out the existing image of Johnson as a bit of bonker. No, what is interesting here, in fact what is worrying here, is how we came to know this. That is, it is quite shocking that it is up to a few people in wigs to decide what we should and shouldn’t know, what the press can and can’t report.
And yet it is this idea, that a select few should get to judge whether the publication of a story is in our interests or not, that passes almost unquestioned today. One journalist-cum-commentator even seemed to treat the Court of Appeal’s verdict as a vindication of his former profession: ‘Given the fact that four experienced judges have unequivocally supported the paper’s public interest justification for running its story, it would be odd for any journalist to question the merits of their argument. I certainly don’t intend to do so.’
But it is precisely this argument – the ‘public interest justification’ – that does need to be questioned. It is a phrase endlessly trotted out in discussions about press freedom and privacy, and it is a phrase that is rarely ever interrogated.
So what exactly does it mean to say that a story is in the public interest? The public – that’s us – certainly don’t play any active role here. What we find interesting, what we decide we might be interested in, is not the same as the public interest, apparently. In fact, the public interest is something shaped and judged apart from the public. It is what an elite, be they judges or righteous editors, think we ought to be interested in; what they deem should be good for us; what ought to edify or illuminate. In short, the public interest is a prescription from those who know best.
This has long been the anti-democratic core nestling at the heart of the idea of the public interest. Initially, when the idea was first entering circulation during the political tumult of the American Revolution, its outlines were unclear. But by the early twentieth century, certain people, people like the American intellectual Walter Lippmann, were using the idea of the public interest far more stridently. ‘There is no point in toying with any notion of an imaginary plebiscite to discover the public interest [because] the public interest is mixed with, and is often at odds with, their private and special interests’, argued Lippmann in the 1930s. Rather, he contended, the public interest should be defined as ‘what men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently’. That is, the public interest was always defined against the public. It was opposed to the whims of the public, to our prejudices, our temptations, our prurience, our salaciousness. It was what ordinary men would choose to be interested in if they were smarter and more rational. And that is the problem with the idea of the public interest: it itself rests on a determinedly anti-democratic prejudice about the demos, a paternalistic assumption that we are incapable of sorting out inconsequential gossip from matters of public import.
So should we be terribly interested in the private lives of politicians? Should we care if Boris Johnson’s private life betrays what certainly seems to be a rather irresponsible, self-gratifying character? These are, in some senses, the wrong questions. Or rather, they are the right questions asked by the wrong people. Because the only people who should be answering these questions, turning them over, arguing about them, and ultimately deciding whether to read or not to read a particular story, are those who do actually constitute themselves as a public; namely, us.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.