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Law column: Statutory regulation based on false premise

I have just finished reading the latest blog by Fleet Street Fox. It’s a really good read, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the current debate about post Leveson regulation of the press.

The Fox (I hope she/he doesn’t mind me being so familiar) explains the problem of privacy and regulation from a tabloid perspective.

What fascinated me was the Fox’s account of a minor celebrity desperately wanting to reveal the most intimate and private information about herself to the world (well, 250,000 Twitter followers), and then revealing similarly private information about her (ex) boyfriend.

Now, it’s true that I spend my days advising regional newspapers about all things legal, but I have to admit that I have no experience at all of dealing with this type of story. Celebrity culture does not feature heavily in the daily and weekly titles that are the backbone of journalism throughout the country.

So the Fox’s account of this particular celebrity’s behaviour was as much an eye opener for me as for most other readers of the blog.

It turns out that the lady in question accessed her (ex) boyfriend’s mobile phone without his permission, and then tweeted about his sexual proclivities. For good measure, she also identified two people with whom he had (allegedly) had affairs. She had no proof, she wasn’t paid to publish this information, she just went ahead and told anyone who was interested what she said she had discovered. And of course, all this was quite unlawful (let alone defamatory).

I have to admit that I’m not a great reader of the tabloids, and I can’t claim to be hugely interested in what the Fox freely described as “meaningless title tattle”.

But I am very interested in freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the potential consequences of post-Leveson regulation of the press based on statute, and the futility of trying to control this kind of behaviour by law.

Lord Justice Leveson will by now have formed his own conclusions and by all accounts, we will shortly know his recommendations.

My hope is that he is not tempted to recommend any form of statutory intervention.

Even if we put to one side the concerns about the potential for state interference, the risk that even the most benign legislation is necessarily the thin end of the wedge, the inability to control online publishers based outside the UK, and so on, the story that the Fox has reported is revealing.

In the age of social media, this sorry tale shows that our fellow citizens have the ability to publish the most intimate information to hundreds of thousands of people, and some of them at least are prepared to do so without apparently showing any concern for the rights of the people whose privacy is being invaded.

I believe in the rule of law. I might not agree with every law that Parliament passes, but until those laws are repealed, we have to accept them. Every publisher I know is of the same view. If Lord Justice Leveson recommends some sort of statutory based regulation of the press and the Government implements his proposals, I have no doubt that the press will comply.

But will our fellow citizens? We know that many people, not just celebrities, are prepared to reveal all about themselves and the people they know, so why should we expect them to behave any differently under a new statutory regime?

What’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. But will it?

It seems to me that the danger lies in professional journalists abiding by a new statute based regulatory regime, whilst the army of amateur publishers carry on publishing whatever they want, regardless of the law. If that happens, what price equality under the law? And what price freedom of expression then?