6 SEPTEMBER 1997, Page 25


A privacy law comes too late for her but can save other lives


Princess Diana's death was the result of a public sin: the insatiable desire of people to know intimate details of the private lives of the famous, and the willingness of the media to feed this loathsome appetite. There is nothing much the law can do about the pub- lic's curiosity, any more than it can curb its sexual lusts, its greed for food, or money, and its other vices. The law is not an agency of moral reform. What the law can do is tackle the suppliers. We punish drug-traf- fickers severely. We regulate every aspect of the liquor trade and of the financial services industry, and imprison infractors. We are beginning to persecute the tobacco industry. We lock up brothel owners and pimps, and even, to a limited extent still, pornographers. But we do nothing to restrain those who cater for the public's craving to peer into the intimate doings of other people — the poor and the nobodies as well as the rich, famous and infamous.

The lack of a privacy law is a huge lacuna in the system of legal protection we extend to all other aspects of human property. We protect our bodies against injury, all forms of our physical possessions against theft, our reputations against libel and slander, and we now have a range of legal remedies if someone takes away our jobs. But if someone ravishes our privacy, quite literal- ly invades it, occupies it and makes money out of it, we have no protection at all. Our most intimate secrets and moments can be brutally exposed to the public gaze and we have no redress.

How important is our privacy? It is not as important as life itself, but in the lives of many — perhaps most — it comes close to it. In the animal kingdom, lack of privacy can be fatal. Ornithologists will tell you that many species of birds, if conscious they are being continually watched, will pine and die. We humans may be able to exist with- out privacy but we certainly cannot be happy, or lead normal, healthy lives, with- out a modicum of it. Those who defend the media's right to invade had the effrontery, last week, to claim that a privacy law would benefit only the rich. But the poor have their privacy violated as often as the rich and celebrated, and we hear nothing about it. A poor family which has been helplessly involved in some tragedy has its fragile defences talked down — or if necessary battered down — by unfeeling reporters and photographers who have no scruples about adding to the pain of the stricken by tearing the flimsy veils from their secrets. The rich can at least buy themselves some measure of protection. The poor have nothing, except their ravaged feelings, which are as tender as anyone else's. Loss of privacy is even more devastating to them because they have so few other possessions. Take away their self-respect and they are indeed naked to the world.

Over many years I have written more articles advocating a privacy law than on any other subject. I compare this campaign to the one we fought, and won, against trade union privileges. In that case too we were told, both by the vested interests and by the lawyers, that only voluntary reform would work, and that legal coercion was impracticable, difficult to frame and impos- sible to enforce. I never believed this argu- ment, which sprang from a mixture of hum- bug and cowardice. So we persisted, we won and events proved us right.

The legal reforms have worked very well. Everyone — including trade union officials themselves — accepts them. No one would dream of going back to the old anarchy. I believe that a well-framed privacy law will have comparable success. It will end the flagrant abuses without in any way inhibit- ing the media from pursuing its legitimate work. Within a few years it will be accepted by everyone, including those who now protest most noisily about its enactment, as just, workable, enforceable and thoroughly in the public interest. We will then look back on the present period, with its paid informers, its theft of tapes and documents, its vindictive betrayals and shameless salac- ity, its destruction of the careers and even the lives of prominent personalities because of behaviour best kept hidden, its lubricious exposure to children, who see photos and headlines in tabloids which can- not be kept from them, of all the vices of perverted sexuality, and, not least, the exclusion of genuine and serious news by the competitive concentration on all that is most sordid in private lives — we will look back on the present time as barbarous. There will be only one query: how did we put up with it for so long?

During the last government, privacy inva- sion grew rapidly in shameless audacity and in its human and public consequences. Immense damage was done to national institutions, particularly to the royal family, and indeed to the government itself. Despite all the evidence that here was a public evil crying for a remedy, the govern- ment did nothing. They were scared. From the prime minister down, or up, its mem- bers felt that they had little press support anyway and were not going to jeopardise what remained by a frontal attack on media legal privilege. Their funk, as always, did them no good, merely persuading the media wolf-pack they were easy meat. Now the problem is Tony Blair's to deal with. He has a huge majority. Has he guts too? He is scared of the media, I know. What I do not know is whether his fear is rational and can be outbalanced by a reasonable calculation of the public interest.

Privacy invasion of the most brutal kind has destroyed the marriage of his foreign secretary and damaged his usefulness. The press have already targeted the private lives of other members of the government, and the deadly files are accumulating. Now the destruction of the most popular member of the royal family, as a direct result of media privacy invasion, provides precisely the catastrophic thunderclap to spur the gov- ernment and parliament into action. If the poor girl's death expedites privacy legisla- tion, she will not have lost her life for noth- ing. Otherwise her ghost will return to haunt the government: 'Why did you allow them to kill me?'

There need be no protracted argument about the shape of the bill. It should cover privacy invasion in every form, not just by the media. The public will wish it to be as severe as is necessary to correct the mani- fest evils created by this gap in the law. Pri- vacy invasion, under the new law, would become a civil tort, and in extreme cases a criminal offence. Courts would give those injured the right to sue and receive com- mensurate damages. Where necessary, and especially to protect the rights of the poor, criminal charges should be pressed. Noth- ing short of the fear of a prison cell will deter certain editors and proprietors.

If their claim to be pursuing the public interest in harassing individuals and exposing their secrets is genuine, they will have noth- ing to fear. They will have the right to plead this in their defence, and a jury of 12 ordi- nary men and women — the best judges of what is in the public interest — will decide. Only the evilly intended need worry. The rest of us will be satisfied that some good has come out of this horrible event, and that the much-troubled spirit of a victimised princess can be finally at rest in consequence.