There are many things the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre no doubt wants to say to the Leveson Inquiry when he appears before it on February 6th and plenty of questions lined up by the Inquiry’s lawyers. I have a small suggestion.
The elusive and much-disputed idea of the “public interest” will play an important part in Leveson’s deliberations. Public interest defences – such as exceptional justifications for intrusion, for example – are written into the Press Complaints Commission’s code of conduct and into several laws. Back in the middle of last year, public interest was an important issue in one of the cases which triggered several public rows and court cases over privacy injunctions.
One of these cases involved Sir Fred Goodwin, the disgraced ex-head of the Royal Bank of Scotland. While in charge of the bank, Goodwin had had an affair with a female colleague. Injunctions were granted to prevent the disclosure of the names of either party. Despite the injunction, Goodwin’s name was freely bandied about on Twitter and he was named in the House of Commons by an MP. A judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, eventually cancelled the order concealing Goodwin’s identity but kept in place the one preventing the naming of his lover.
The Daily Mail did not approve of the judge’s decision, running as many details (“the mistress on a six-figure salary”) about the woman as it thought it could get away with. Or so it appeared. A number of different court hearings were held on this case and this is the judgement covering what the Mail had said. It repays careful reading.
The Mail’s lawyer discloses that one item of information about the woman was false and known to be so when published. The woman’s lawyer said that another “fact” about her was wrong and wasn’t contradicted. Both of these pieces of information were about her job, including the claim that she had been promoted during her affair with the bank’s head. The Mail’s lawyer suggests that these falsehoods were planted to put people off the scent and make the woman’s identification less likely. Mr Justice Tugendhat wasn’t having any of this implausible nonsense: “As I remarked in court in response to that submission, another effect of the false information is that it would tend to mislead the reader into believing that it would be in the public interest for the identity of the lady to be disclosed. In other words, it laid the supposed factual basis for the public interest argument advanced by Mr Hemming…and the editorial on page 14, as well as of the headline on page 1.”
Put into plain English, the judge was accusing the Mail of lying about the facts which lay behind its argument for disclosure in the public interest. Read it for yourself, but that seems worth asking about on February 6th.