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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.