Monday, May 24, 2010


On Stings, Entrapment and the Public Interest

My post today begins with a warning. If someone looking even remotely like the guy on the left tries to interest you in having sex for a million pounds with a meerkat or something similar, make your excuses and leave. Sadly for the Duchess of York she agreed to 'sell' access to her husband to a man dressed up as a foreign businessman. Her antennae for trouble-and she's known a lot of it- should have told her this was the 'fake sheik',famed for such stings.

Don't know about you but I'm getting fed up with such duplicitous stunts. This isn't just because they are inherently sleazy and dishonest, but the subjects have sometimes seemed not so much transgressors as 'victims'.I refer in particular to Lord Triesman's recent little escapade with the Mail on Sunday. Andrew Anthony, a journalist whom I rather dislike, penned a telling piece in The Observer, excoriating the Mail on Sunday for its hypocrisy (what's new?)and arguing the Labour lord's privacy had been violated by this tawdry operation.

Just as culpable as the Tory rag was Melissa Jacobs, if we are to believe her, Triesman's former lover. She it was who attended dinner with him,indicating a closeness surviving their affair. In the same situation any man might imagine that such a meeting was for old times-sake- just friendship. No problems with that. But Melissa was wired! What did she think she'd get? Maybe she knew he was indiscreet but he was no longer a minister and his only claim to fame was being the chairman of the Football Association, pitching for the 2118 World Cup. But he said something about rumours that Spain and Russia were trying to bribe referees and the shameless MoS gave her 75,000 quid for this useless but lethal piece of speculation. More shame on their readers I know, but Anthony was right to claim this as a violation of civil liberties.

This was a private meal where old friends might well expand and say things they might not say in the company of others. It happens all the time and we really have hit Orwell's 1984 if such a meeting can no longer be carried out without prior body searches. Ms Jacobs should be thoroughly ashamed of herself. Her failing was much worse than that of the Duchess or his lordship, in my view, as she betrayed an apparently decent man doing a job for his country; if she hated him then boy, she's got to have a good reason but why pretend frienship if she did?

Was it in the 'national interest' that she blow the whistle on his self aggrandizing gossiping? Of course not- Bitain will probably fail to nail that lucrative gig for 2118 as a result of behaviour which can only be compared to that of Judas Iscariot.

Hardly agree with any of this. I think people are rather more fed up with public figures who behave like Triesman, and I suspect your outrage is rather more to do with the media outlets who publish such stories. Why are the left so irritated by such a large section of the media? Having dominated virtually every other institution in the country(universities, schools, police, social services), it must be mighty irriating when the middle classes still troop out in their hordes to read the likes of the Daily Mail. Liberals seem to find it hard to live and let live these days...

The man is obviously an idiot, and should not have been entrusted with what you say is a rather important gig. If we do indeed fail(and this looks likely thanks to Triesman), it will be because Brown failed to appoint someone competent enough to promote what is clearly the best bid for the tournament. I note that Triesman has never been elected to any public position. Labour will surely be remembered for their disgraceful use of patronage, and the frequent promotion of such non-entities.

To be clear, Triesman was recording saying that there was evidence the Spanish were trying to pay referees. Where is his evidence? In its absence, it should be him in the dock for slander.

And I doubt Orwell wrote 1984 so that Triesman could try to ingratiate himself with this young woman by maliciously slandering other countries(without evidence) without public scrutiny.
Hello, I’m the journalist Bill Jones “rather dislikes” – a judgment with which somehow I must find the moral strength to live. First thing to say is that, no, this has nothing to do with Orwell’s 1984 and it’s silly melodrama to suggest otherwise. We’re not living in North Korea, or any place like it, and to pretend that we are ill-serves the argument for civil liberties. But we do live somewhere in which respect for the private realm is steadily depleting. There are all manner of reasons for this, some of which I outlined in my original column, but the net result is that few people – on the left, right or anywhere – are much bothered when a public figure is destroyed by unwarranted intrusions into his or her personal life. The idea seems to be that it comes with the job. It doesn’t. Or at least it shouldn’t. Michael Oakenshott is wrong for several reasons, the most obvious is in his attempt to turn the Mail on Sunday’s ending of Lord Triesman’s career into a middle class crusade. The fact is the large majority of responses to the MoS by its readers have been negative.
But implicit in his argument is that their is a public support for press intrusion. The truth is that in many cases – although not in this one – the public are indeed happy to read of information gathered by invasion of privacy. But the key question regarding liberty and rights is not what we’re prepared to see happen to other people but what we are prepared to be subject to ourselves. Are you Michael happy to conduct every private conversation on the basis that it could later be publicly disseminated and that you’d be prepared to back up your opinions with evidence in court?
I know several police officers who have told me things in confidence about major criminals that they wouldn’t say publicly because the evidence would not stand up. At any time, according to your thinking, I could and indeed should secretly record the conversations and ruin their careers. When Robert Maxwell was alive and stealing from his employees' pension funds, plenty of people in journalism suggested privately that he was up to no good. There were rumours, bits of information and dubious behaviour, but it did not add up to a conclusive case. Anyone who made public these suspicions was immediately sued by Maxwell, or threatened by his lawyers. The logic of your argument, Michael, is that no one should have raised a word of doubt in private until a watertight case was presented in public. But of course the only way any investigation - journalistic or police – could have been built would have been through people speaking privately, passing on confidences without fear of exposure.
One of the most difficult aspects of attempting to uncover details of a story as a journalist is building trust. Trust is a necessary, indeed crucial, glue in not just professional relations but social relations in general. It’s important for our health as a community and a society to recognise when trust has been so callously betrayed, as in the Triesman case, purely for financial gain.
I don’t wish to see legislation inhibiting the ability of the press to investigate private individuals operating in public life (that would be legislation celebrated by the corrupt and the venal). And that’s why it’s important that the public does not allow itself to be co-opted into ‘public interest’ defences that serve no public interest. When the press steps so flagrantly out of line, it’s in all our interests to let it be known, rather than join in on beating up its hapless victim.
It's not your journalism I 'dislike'- I think it's really good to the extent that I read it. Your article I wholly agreed with, hence my basing most of my post around it. No, it's just that a few years ago we had a short contretemps online and I thought your manner verged on the arrogant and dismissive- qualities I've never liked very much.

I remember that debate. We had different opinions and I expressed mine clearly and without apology because I think the issue discussed - namely freedom of expression – was and remains vital to support, and because I respected you enough not to patronise you by not making my responses a custard of polite evasion. Your own opinion of our correspondence, expressed at the time, was that it was "an enjoyable exchange which has reached parts of the debate other discussions have not". It's instructive to learn that your real thoughts on the matter were quite different.
Yes, you are quite right. Politeness is often a mask for the truth and I am duly chastised.
Am honoured to have a journalist from Britain's (tenth) most popular Sunday paper.

I am no attempt to turn the MoS story into a middle-class crusade, and would be interested where you plucked such a conclusion from. I merely pointed out the Mail's high circulation figures in the face of such trendy liberal faux rage.

Again, not completely sure how you figure that the reaction to the Mail story has been negative. I had rather noted the general ridicule of Triesman's foolish behaviour, and natural disappointment that he seems to have ended our chances of hosting this tournament.

I suspect most of the public want newspapers that report news. And I suspect most of the public are happy that those in the public eye are exposed to scrutiny when they step out of line.

I am happy to stand by any words that I say at any moment. It's called accountability. I don't think policemen briefing journalists about their "hunches" is generally a good thing in a democracy. I really don't care if you go public with this, but I will certainly not be grief stricken for them when they are exposed.

Maybe if a few more of you in the press had bothered to find EVIDENCE for Maxwell's crimes, then you could have published.

Of course, private people are entitled to private lives and private conversations. The point you miss is that Triesman was not a private, but public figure. He was our representative, and he represented us badly. He deserved to be exposed, and his friends in (some) sections of the media are fighting a lost cause in his defence.
I wonder where this block capital 'evidence' comes from? Out of the air? From a tree? Perhaps a polite request to Robert Maxwell about his affairs would have done the trick. As we know, by your reckoning, evidence can't possibly come from someone pointing a journalist in the right direction, because who would speak to a journalist off the record when the understanding is that everything they say must meet a court-level of proof? So no "Deep Throat", no Watergate. In fact, most renowned investigations would have come to nothing.
I think what you seem to be saying about Triesman is that because he worked in a high profile job he had no right to a private life. That right only exists for people working in low-profile jobs. Somehow I doubt that clause was in his contract. The distinction you make between public and private is arbitrary. Is the head of the Rugby Football Union a public figure without a right to privacy? The head of women's table tennis, a public figure with no right to privacy? The vice-chair of Welsh bowling association? Who decides? The Mail on Sunday?
You bandy around a word like accountability. Accountable to whom? Triesman was accountable to his employers not the editor of the Mail on Sunday. To whom is the editor of the Mail on Sunday accountable? He enjoys a position of some public prominence. Does he have to worry about being bugged? Because, by definition, journalists talk all the time about things for which they do not have court-level proof.
You say the public wants the news reported. Well that's a profound insight. But what constitutes the news? If Triesman had gone home after a hard day's work and complained about the venality of some Premiership chairmen, just as nearly everyone complains about the people they work with, and his conversation was taped by his wife and sold to a newspaper for a large sum of money, presumably that would constitute news. But is that an acceptable means of news gathering?
You say that Triesman represented "us". Well, that's stretching it. It's true that the FA receives some public funding, but if the government believed he was doing a bad job it could have withdrawn the funding. Even the threat of its withdrawal would have necessitated Triesman's removal. That would be pubic accountability. Of course, while the sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe did implicitly express reservations about Triesman's performance, he also knew that the Premier League has all the muscle in British football. There's a legitimate debate to be had about that, but it needn't involve bugging private lunch conversations.
I've never met nor spoken to Triesman. And like most journalists, including those who write with such authority on his performance, I don't know whether he was doing a good or bad job at the FA in terms of what was realistically achievable. I do know that the Premier League is constantly briefing against the FA, the better to protect the Premier League's selfish interests from scrutiny and regulation.
But none of that is the point. What we're discussing here is whether a right to privacy exists for people in the public eye. You obviously believe that it does not and that anyone in high profile employment should assume that they are on camera and tape at all times, everywhere. In which case either we are going to evolve a superhuman species of managers and officials, with a godlike ability to remain apart from the world, or we're going to see a lot of talented, competent people lose their jobs and reputations in the name of "news" creation. And a lot of unscrupulous people rewarded for their betrayal. It doesn't have to be that way. We could change the laws that protect the rich and powerful from scrutiny – the injunctions and absurd libel laws behind which Maxwell hid his criminality – and at the same time step back from the corrosive and corrupting intrusions into the private lives of law-abiding citizens. Though you may wish it otherwise, that is not a lost cause.
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