Paul McMullan and the denial of privacy

Why privacy is not just for "paedos".

The evidence of former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan to the Leveson inquiry was extraordinary and attention-grabbing. One almost wanted, following Blade Runner, for the barrister to ask McMullan what he would do if he saw a tortoise upside down in the sun. In the words of Graham Linehan on Twitter, it was as if McMullan was of another species.

What caused this response to his appearance and his evidence? It was perhaps the casual inhumanity and lack of any ethical concern. The only moment when McMullan showed any genuine disdain was when he dismissed his former editors as "scum" for what they did against him personally. But other than this flicker of defiance, his evidence was dark, depressing, and disconcerting.

And it was revealing. It gave the impression of a tabloid journalist simply thinking aloud, without any of the usual excuses, evasions, and euphemisms. The evidence was simply raw. It may well be that some of the evidence is unreliable, and it could also be that McMullan is not representative of tabloid journalism, but anyone who saw his stumbling and wince-inducing performance will probably never forget it.

At one point McMullan flatly rejected the general right of "privacy". It was a space, he contended, only for bad people to do bad things. Privacy, he assured the inquiry, was just for "paedos". Indeed, privacy was "evil".

Of course, McMullan cannot really believe this. Presumably the "toilet suite" he mentioned he wants for his Dover pub will come with cubicles fitted with doors and locks. One would hope he would not be a pub landlord who insists that all his customers defecate in an open room, at the risk of being denounced to the other customers as a child abuser.

In fact, everyone needs a private space to do certain things, even McMullan. Privacy is not an evil; it instead provides the sense of autonomy and dignity which is essential for any human being in a civilized society. There are questions as to how this basic human need for privacy is translated into effective legal remedies and how it is accorded respect by the tabloid media. There is also the difficult issue as to how privacy is balanced with publication of information in the public interest. But this does not mean that a person should not have a private space at all.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia