Monday, November 10, 2008

Paul Dacre: a cunt but correct

In some cases doesn't pain me to say that I agree with the editor of the Daily Mail. In this instance Paul Dacre's argument that the Human Rights Act and its provisions about privacy allow judges to interpret the law in ways that can and will inhibit newspapers' freedom of speech and their ability to investigate what people get up to is perfectly correct.

The British press is having a privacy law imposed on it, which apart from allowing the corrupt and the crooked to sleep easily in their beds is, I would argue, undermining the ability of mass-circulation newspapers to sell newspapers in an ever more difficult market.

If you want to hear a lawyer's take on the matter, you can read one here. My concern is more practical. It's not that there is an overwhelming public interest in reports about Max Moseley's amusingly colourful leisure activities; but any law that starts off by making activities in the bedroom off-limits won't end there (what about a politician who gives public money to someone with whom they are sexually involved, for instance?). Really it's the nebulous concept of "privacy" that worries me: Dacre is a case in point.

It is thanks to the press freedoms he defends that Private Eye, and others, can report that he is a foul-mouthed bully; an obnoxious and hypocritical thug who addresses his underlings in terms he would never allow in his newspaper (amusingly these tirades are known as the vagina monologues). Is that private behaviour? Should it be private? His underlings consent to these verbal batterings in exchange for money, after all.

Anyway, abusing Dacre, though it is both a fun and proper way to exercise freedom of speech, is rather beside the point. The intolerable moralising with which he makes his arguments does tend to weaken his case somewhat. He believes that Max Moseley's spanking sessions should be exposed because they are "acts of unimaginable sexual depravity" and that society benefits from the moral condemnation of such acts.

What pitiful tosh. Apart from the fact that Dacre is obviously a man of staggering limited imagination (I can think of several more depraved acts than that), I have also been grateful to the freedom of the press for exposing several more depraved acts (it was thanks to the Guardian that I first heard the phrase Cincinnati Bow Tie, for instance).

Where he does weaken his case is the suggestion that the law should be there to protect us from the consequences of others' depravity: "the very abrogation of civilised behaviour of which the law is supposed to be the safeguard". Nope. Civility (which is really what he's talking about) is no concern of the law: its primary duty to civilisation is prevent us from harming each other.

By my moral standards the Daily Mail's relentless coarsening of public discourse, its promotion of ascientific ignorance (MMR being a good example of the dangers of this) and its utterly vile bullying of some of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society is something that should be utterly condenmed under all the values of civilisation. All of this yellow journalism does, I think, do real harm to people. Dacre should be an object of public odium, a pariah in all polite circles.

And yet to suggest that the law should be involved is an absurdity. It should be there to safeguard our liberties, including those of speech, actions and conscience. Occcasionally we might do harm to ourselves, so what?; we might abuse our rights and behave badly towards others, again so what? (With the caveat about outright incitement to violence against others: horrible as the Mail is with regard to immigrants it doesn't go that far).

So let's not cheapen the debate with this moralising guffe, it only weakens the defence of free speech. It would be as absurd to expect the law to uphold my moral standards as it would to expect it to uphold Paul Dacre's rather different set of values. We don't what an endless debate about which moral vaules the law should be protecting, after all. It's all about allowing us freedom of choice. A final Dacre-ism:

Now some revile a moralising media. Others, such as myself, believe it is the duty of the media to take an ethical stand. Either way, it is a choice but Eady has taken away our freedom of expression to make that choice.

So for all that I despise what he stands for. He's right. Damn him.

UPDATE: Lots of typical handwringing on this by Guardian writers. Polly Toynbee after condemning Dacre roundly for condemning people concludes that his paper abuses press freedom. I agree the Mail abuses that freedom, but is she willing to give up those freedoms on those grounds? It's not clear whether she would.

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