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Free speech and the ‘right to know’

Part Five of the spiked-report 'Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age'.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

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Part Five of the spiked-report ‘Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age’.

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  • Free speech is often defended in terms of the public’s ‘right to know’.
  • There is no right to know the details of public figures’ private lives.
  • The notion of a right to know confuses free speech.

The assertion of the ‘right to know’

In the debate about the quality of speech, some people say that we have a ‘right to know’ things that are in the public interest, or which are important or newsworthy. At the same time, in the discussion about speech regulation, a ‘right to know’ is used to qualify and restrain free speech. Is demanding a ‘right to know’ useful?

Increasingly today, free speech tends to be qualified by its association with a ‘right to know’. This defines permissible speech according to what somebody thinks the public should know about. But what if the issue at stake relates, not to what is assumed to be something of interest to the public, but to what is important – regardless of whether the public wants to know about it or not?

Speaking at the Toronto Film Festival a few years ago, the Hollywood actor Alec Baldwin – imitating a TV interviewer – asked ‘Do you sleep naked? The public has a right to know!’ Explaining that he doesn’t mind interviews or people following him to airports, he said, ‘But I’m not a politician. I don’t spend your tax dollars. I’m an actor. You don’t have the gawddam right to know. You can ask but you don’t have the right to know anything about my private life.’ (1)

In a famous case in 1992, relating to the publication of Andrew Morton’s book about the private life of Princess Diana, Lord McGregor, then chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), warned journalists not to ‘dabble their fingers in the stuff of other people’s souls’. The message was clear: the public have no right to know about the royals’ bedroom secrets. Later it turned out that the Princess had co-operated with the author. Surely we should be allowed to know this?

Contrary to Baldwin’s assertions, there is no right to know about anybody’s personal affairs – and nor should there be. Contrary to McGregor’s warnings, however, anybody should have the right to speak and know about what they want – including the concerns of other people’s souls.

When it comes to free speech, the discussion of a ‘right to know’ is a red herring. But it is one that is used both to stress the importance of free speech, and to undermine it in reality.

How has this association arisen between free speech and a right to know? In a confessional culture, intimacies are offered to the media for public consumption. This creates further interest in the private lives of others. At the same time, other public figures argue for a clampdown on what can and cannot be reported.

Journalists experience this contradiction. Do they focus on people’s private lives because this is what people seem interested in? Or should they accept the implications of new codes and laws on privacy and be cautious, thereby denying people information?
Public figures, private lives

Some conclude that the media has a right to know the truth. The logic is: if somebody does something in their private life that others want to talk about, if that person has previously talked about his private life, or if he issues a public statement that is at odds with what he does in his private life, then there is a right to know.

Examples of such arguments in practice include:

— A national tabloid newspaper editorial arguing for a ‘right to know’ about a public figure’s extra-marital affairs. The People newspaper stated: ‘Our legal crusade to tell the unpleasant truth about how Flitcroft cheated on his wife with two mistresses was about more than exposing a millionaire Premiership player as a love rat. It was about a matter of principle. And that principle was YOUR right to know the truth. This man used his wealth and celebrity status to become a serial sexual predator on impressionable young women without a thought to whom he might hurt. And to his everlasting shame he had unprotected sex with one of them when his wife was pregnant…He not only tried to gag this newspaper, but also to silence the right of free speech of his victims.’ (2)
— A journalist arguing for a ‘right to know’ about the private life of royals. Tom Brown, in the Daily Record newspaper, wrote: ‘The stuffy British Monarchy took the decision to go public and market itself. Di was a gift to a family struggling for popularity. Even after her marriage break-up, Di still dominated [media coverage]. Rightly, because there was a genuine public right-to-know about the mother of the future King…She was also capable of using her star status for her own motives. Sometimes she welcomed the cameras on private occasions, other times she objected.’ (3)
— A Daily Telegraph editorial headlined ‘The Right to Know’ stated that: ‘It remains the duty of newspapers, we think, to disclose disagreeable facts about individuals, even at the risk of being accused of invading privacy or sued for defamation….Anyone who doubts it should recall the example of Robert Maxwell, who managed all too successfully to frighten off disclosure of what the public should have known.’ (4)

A right to know is argued for by journalists wishing to add moral authority to their arguments for free speech. It is a way of stressing that the content of the speech is of public interest, so people should know the information rather than being kept in the dark. When journalists say readers have a ‘right to know’, it is shorthand for a story that is newsworthy.

People should know anything they want to. A country in which knowledge cannot be freely exchanged is not a free country. However, in terms of the quality of speech, what counts as newsworthy is an important discussion. Surely the point is not what people might want to know about, but what it is important to say?

Knowledge is important – but so is an assessment of why we want to know. For example, the exposure of the private lives of public figures can shed light on their character – although it depends on your view of particular human relationships and morality. Former President Clinton’s false claim that ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman… Ms Lewinsky’ was taken by some to mean that, if he could lie about this, what else was he lying to the American people about? Yet on the night of his impeachment the American public seemed to make a clear distinction between their President’s private and public life. A poll for ABC News found that 74 percent of Americans thought that the President lacked morals, and 66 percent gave him a job approval rating. (5)

A dominant trend today is that journalists and politicians increasingly judge public figures and their work by their conduct in their private life. In an essay titled ‘The Concept of Sleaze’, Timothy Bewes, a cultural commentator and research Fellow at Liverpool John Moores university, wrote that the rise of sleaze in news coverage and in politics represents ‘a lack of faith in the possibility and the discipline of politics, which is degenerating in to a series of purely technical tasks at the same time that it begins to shift its areas of preoccupation from exterior principles to interior motives.’ (6)

Public figures may be hypocritical, but is a judgement about somebody’s private morality always helpful to public debate? When public figures such as the David Mellor (then National Heritage secretary) and Tim Yeo (then environment minister) were revealed to have conducted extra-marital affairs, around the time when John Major’s government was conducting its 1993 ‘Back to Basics’ family values campaign, (7) the personal and political embarrassment resulted in the resignation of several ministers.

In 2002, Edwina Currie defended her revelations of a secret affair with John Major before he became prime minister, by saying that ‘the making of a prime minister was a profoundly significant piece of history’ (8). Many press commentators concluded that the story was of public interest. Matthew Parris said it ‘would have tripped both careers if revealed at the time’ (9); Anne Robinson writes that Currie has done ‘contemporary history a service’, unlike other politicians who ‘wouldn’t have the nerve’ to reveal their sexual peccadilloes (10).

There should perhaps be little sympathy for politicians who preach the relevance of sexual morality to other people’s public standing, and are caught out by their own behaviour. Even though Major denied he intended Back to Basics to be about personal morality, his government did not stop the resignation of ministers after revelations about extramarital affairs. But to use private behaviour as the chief basis for political discussion degrades political debate. People’s public actions become assessed primarily in terms of their private morals and motives, rather than according to the success or failure of their public achievement (11).

It is also considered that the public has a right to know about public figures (and their family members) who have broken the law. This is not to say public figures should enjoy a ban on coverage of their misdemeanours. But delving in to the personal lives of politicians and lawmakers is often justified as a way of exposing the hypocrisy of their policy decisions. Is this legitimate? Does it even work?

On 5 July 2000 Tony Blair’s 16-year old son Euan was arrested for being drunk in Leicester Square after celebrating his GCSE exams. The story was published in most newspapers a few days after the Prime Minister suggested on the spot fines for drunken and disorderly behaviour. What was the result? Personal embarrassment? Maybe. An entertaining story? Perhaps. U-turn on the proposal? No. Pilot schemes, including £40 on-the-spot penalty notices issued by police for drunk and disorderly behaviour, went ahead anyway. And two years later, ‘officers are already suggesting extending it to problems like litter and low-level damage to property,’ said Chief Inspector James Andronov, in charge of the scheme at West Midlands. (12)

Alastair Irvine, son of the Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine, was revealed in November 2001 to have been treated for cannabis and crack cocaine addition. The Mail on Sunday linked the discovery to the government’s policy of liberalising the cannabis laws – part of the argument behind which was that cannabis does not lead to other, more serious, drugs. It was reported by the Press Gazette that the newspaper believed that it was inconceivable that the Lord Chancellor wasn’t involved in the relaxation of the law, and there was a public interest in knowing how his personal experiences may have motivated his involvement. The Lord Chancellor complained about intrusion of privacy to the PCC. (13)

Nobody should be stopped from knowing about criminal acts, but whatever you think about drug laws – or the legitimacy of a complaint to the PCC – how can the personal case-history of one 24-year old man be evidence of any conspiracy of this kind? Who knows what really motivates the Lord Chancellor – unless there is written or verbal evidence of what he thinks? And one case hardly refutes a body of evidence that claims class C cannabis drug-users tend not to go on to use class A drugs.

In any case, politicians have become adept at turning such revelations about their families’ misdemeanours to their advantage. Tony Blair used the story about his son’s arrest to assert his vision of ‘family values’. Referring to the incident in a speech soon afterwards, he said: ‘The values that you represent are the values I hope that we all share – respect, tolerance, the family, trying to bring up children properly.’ (14)

In 1998, after William Straw, 17, was arrested for supplying £10 worth of cannabis to an undercover reporter, his father Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, took the opportunity to make a public statement about family values, saying, ‘Being a parent means giving love and support, and, when it’s necessary, confront children with their wrong-doing.’ (15)

Is it so outlandish to consider that public figures can offer values for society to aspire to, even if their own private lives don’t measure up? Nobody considered Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s personal drinking habits to have undermined the argument for a sober fighting force in the battlefield during the Second World War. When Bessie Braddock MP stated, ‘Winston you are drunk!’ in the House of Commons, he replied without any repercussions on his public position: ‘And madam, you are ugly. And tomorrow, I’ll be sober, and you will still be ugly.’

People might want to be in the know about public figures’ private lives – but that is not the same as saying that we have a right to know. The Human Rights Act (1998) already states that the right to free expression involves the right to ‘receive’ information and ideas. But the demand for a right to know is a demand for something more, emphasising not only the receiving of knowledge but gaining access to it. Such a demand is an unhelpful confusion in the free speech debate.

There is no clearly definable right to know about an individual’s private life. Nor, I would argue, should there be. What should exist is free speech – which includes the freedom to talk about what you think others should know.

  • Point two: Free speech cannot be defended on the basis of a right to know.

This is part five of the spiked-report ‘Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age’.

Read on:

Part Six: Free speech and the public interest

Part Seven: The confusion over privacy

Part Eight: Privacy loses its meaning

Part Nine: Privacy, free speech and the media: some conclusions

Part Ten: Contents and acknowledgements
Part One: Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age

Part Two: Privacy vs free speech: two competing rights?

Part Three: A qualified right to free speech

Part Four: Free speech and trivia

(1) Alec Baldwin quoted in Oh, the Elle with the paparazzi!, Toronto Sun, 8 September 1997, published in CANOE (Canadian Online Explorer)

(2) ‘Voice of the People – why Sunday People fought and won a victory for press freedom,’ The Sunday People, 31 March 2002

(3) Tom Brown, ‘Who’s really guilty of Diana’s death?’, Daily Record, 2 September 1997

(4) ‘The right to know,’ editorial, Daily Telegraph, 28 March 2002-10-15

(5) Public Backs President, ABC News, 21 December 1998

(6) Dr. Timothy Bewes, (Autumn/Winter 1997), ‘The Concept of Sleaze’, New Formations Journal, No. 32, p.170

(7) UK Politics – The Major Scandal Sheet, BBC News, 27 October 1998

(8) Quoted in ‘Love for John ruled my life,’ The Sun, 28 September 2002

(9) Matthew Parris, ‘Major’s high wire walk without a safety net,’ The Times, 3 October 2002

(10) Anne Robinson, ‘The big blue underpants will go down in history,’ Daily Telegraph, 4 October 2002

(11) ‘Major ready to lie in court over affair,’ The Sunday Times, 6 October 2002

(12) ‘Blair’s on-the-spot fines are just the ticket,’ Daily Telegraph, 17 September 2002

(13) ‘Irvine son crack expose was justified, says MoS,’ Press Gazette, 15 November 2001

(14) Blair’s son ‘drunk and incapable’, BBC News, 6 July 2002

(15) Family misfortunes, BBC News, 6 July 2000

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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