Tuesday 24 May 2011

You really could not make it up

Most public relations advisers devote as much time to keeping stories out of the media as they do to promoting their clients.

When it all goes wrong, I usually deploy a soothing line about “tomorrow’s chip wrapper”. It’s not true any more, alas, now that the Elfin Safety zealots have banished old newspapers from the nation’s chip shops and replaced them with hygienic polystyrene trays. But it remains a useful figure of speech. Least said, soonest mended.

Because however annoying a media report may be, the surest way to maximise awareness of it is to make a formal complaint, which will ensure repetition of the original story and bring it to the notice of a far wider audience than it attracted first time around.

It is far better to ensure that any errors are simply noted by the journalist concerned, so that they will not be repeated in the future.

As any fule kno, the worst possible thing to do in these circumstances is to consult a lawyer. Because in the long run the only party that is going to benefit from that is the aforementioned lawyer, and such of his chums as may be engaged by other parties in any resulting litigation.

This is such elementary common sense that it beggars belief that apparently sane individuals are going to the trouble and expense of obtaining “superinjunctions” to stop the media mentioning their various sexual peccadilloes. In the age of the internet, they might as well try to stop a tsunami with a toddler’s bucket and spade.

Having tangential access to the London chattering classes, I have known the formerly injuncted story of Andrew Marr’s supposed love child for years. As an occasional Twitter user (@keithhann, if you want to join my select band of followers) I have been aware of the identities of those behind the current batch of injunctions for some time. My first reaction was that I had never even heard of most of them, and my second was that I did not care what they did.

Assuming the stories to be true, allowing them to appear in print in a red top paper would have attracted the notice of those who are interested in that sort of thing for maybe 24 hours, then it would have been chip-wrapping history. The brilliant alternative of engaging some of Britain’s top lawyers to prevent publication has instead brought those concerned truly global notoriety.

It is simply staggering that there are judges in London who apparently believe that they can prevent publication of information on a worldwide basis when, as the editor of the Sunday Herald has spotted, the jurisdiction of the English courts does not extend to Scotland, never mind the rest of the planet.

Indeed, when some English newspapers reported on their websites on Sunday that the identity of a certain footballer had been revealed in a Scottish publication that they could not name for legal reasons, the affair moved beyond parody. You really could not make it up.

Is there any legitimate public interest in the stories that the lawyers and their clients are working so hard and so ineffectively to suppress? Politicians who lie to and cheat on their spouses seem to me fair game, since there is every chance that the same character traits will become evident in their treatment of the electorate.

In the case of sporting or other celebrities, there is no comparable public interest defence for their exposure. But they have assiduously courted a following in the pursuit of their careers. Can they really expect to be selective in what the public may know about them?

It would be better, surely, simply to let their lives be guided by this rule: never do anything today that you would be ashamed to read about over your breakfast tomorrow morning.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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