THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
FLAWED BUT VITAL TO DEMOCRACY
The freedom of the press to intrude into private lives has come under sustained examination in the opening hearings of the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics. Celebrities and private individuals caught in the media spotlight have been describing the nightmare they experienced at the hands of the tabloid press. Most devastating was the testimony of the parents of Milly Dowler and of Madeleine McCann, one child murdered and the other one abducted, who in the midst of a tragedy found their plight worsened by media misdeeds: intrusion, invention, exaggeration, misrepresentation, malicious speculation – all of it further victimising people who were already victims. The weight of public scrutiny alone must have been terrifying.
There is a distinction the press itself is likely to make, not unreasonably, between the treatment of celebrities like comedian Steve Coogan and actor Hugh Grant, and those others who never sought publicity but had it thrust upon them. Celebrities earn their living by being famous. It inflates their market value, and they know how to milk it; or they can hire professional advisers who do. Nevertheless, the evidence of these celebrities painted a picture of media conduct, not so much in what was published but in how the material was gathered without any respect for their right to privacy, which cannot be regarded as acceptable. Many of their experiences were similar to those described by people like the Dowlers and the McCanns.
Above all, and despite the issue being dealt with in the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) code of conduct, the journal-
ists concerned seemed to lack any sense of privacy as a value to be defended, or as a line not to be crossed.
It is bound to occur to the Leveson Inquiry, therefore, that far tougher regulation is called for to put a stop to such unwarranted media intrusion. It will not be so easy to say how that would work. There is already pressure in Parliament for privacy to be given greater legal protection, perhaps treated like defamation or breach of copyright.
The Human Rights Act, by incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, has already given the courts some jurisdiction in this area, for instance by the granting of injunctions against “kiss-and-tell” exclusives. With judge-made law already in play, the case grows for Parliament to legislate. The wider issues concern regulation in general, such as the lack of sanctions or any investigative capacity available to the PCC; and the Leveson Inquiry will also have to address the situation created by the withdrawal of the Express group of newspapers from the jurisdiction of the PCC altogether. A privacy law to tidy up the judge-made law based on human rights could be tolerable, but only if it can clarify the distinction to be made between breaches of privacy not in the public interest, such as in the cases before Lord Justice Leveson this week, and those that are, which are designed to expose wrongdoing. After all, it was investigative journalism which exposed the News of the World phone-hacking scandal in the first place. The health of British democracy requires the freedom of the press. Wanton abuse of it, by intrusion into privacy or any other means, undermines that freedom.
IN PRAISE OF STABILITY
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster says he is “very disappointed” at the Prime Minister’s announcement that he wants to legislate in favour of gay marriage. The Church of England and other faith communities are also eager to defend the legal definition of marriage as exclusively between man and woman, and a parliamentary battle seems inevitable. But the omens are not good. Opinion polls tend to be on the side of David Cameron.
of the bishops’ conference in Leeds this week: “We would want to emphasise that civil partnerships actually provide a structure in which people of the same sex who want a lifelong relationship … can find their place and protection and legal provision … We need to make that distinction between the values of equality and commitment in relationships and the actual nature of marriage itself.”
The list of nations that have amended their laws in favour of gay marriage grows longer all the time, despite being resisted in every case by the Catholic Church and others. The price of such a defeat, in damage to the Church’s prestige and authority, needs to be factored into the bishops’ calculations. Undoubtedly one of the reasons left-wing politicians across the globe have been picking this fight is to advance the cause of secularism – in which they have succeeded. What would make defeat more certain would be to conduct the debate in ways that give credence to the charge that Roman Catholicism is indelibly homophobic. It was wise, therefore, of Archbishop Nichols to position the Church as sympathetic to the case for civil partnerships – in essence gay relationships recognised by law. In a welcome display of pastoral sensitivity, the archbishop has put distance between the bishops’ position now and what they have said before, and even more so between it and the 2003 Vatican statement Considerations Regarding Proposals to give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons which provocatively described civil partnerships as the “legalisation of evil”. He said after the meeting
Proponents of gay marriage argue that conventional, heterosexual marriage has proved measurably beneficial to those who enter it, in terms of mental and physical health, longevity and sense of well-being; and that these advantages ought not to be denied to homosexuals. It would be damaging to the Catholic case to respond to that by suggesting that gay marriage would morally contaminate it as an institution, notwithstanding that that is the implication of the Vatican statement. It is on that basis that the statement dismisses it as harmful to the common good. It is a claim the bishops of England and Wales would have difficulty proving. Indeed, the desire of some homosexual men and woman to marry could be regarded as an unexpected compliment to marriage.
Gay marriage is not the only factor that could affect the health of marriage as an institution. Unemployment, insecurity, poverty and the lack of affordable housing, which partly lie behind the increase in informal cohabitation over recent decades and which are real social evils, urgently need to be tackled. The bishops should mention them as even more serious threats to marriage and family life than changes in the legal definition of marriage which would directly affect only a small minority.
2 | THE TABLET | 26 November 2011