Tabloid morality, missing Madeleine and the perils of a clever politician

The downmarket newspapers can scarcely contain their glee at the rash of allegations on Twitter, naming celebrities who have supposedly taken out superinjunctions to prevent publication of details of their sexual behaviour. The apparent failure of judges' attempts to create a privacy law, the papers claim, represents a great triumph for liberty. It is nothing of the sort. It marks a significant victory for those who favour a Taliban-style moral dictatorship, in which anyone who commits adultery - or, more precisely, anyone suspected of adultery - risks a (metaphorical) public stoning.

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail's very own Ayatollah, or "editor", as he prefers to call himself, outlined the moral argument in 2008. "Since time immemorial," he said, "public shaming has been a vital element in defending . . . acceptable standards of social behaviour, helping ensure that citizens . . . adhere to them for the good of the greater community. For hundreds of years, the press has played a vital role . . . It has the freedom to identify those who have offended public standards of decency . . . and hold the transgressors up to public condemnation. If their readers don't agree with the defence of such values, they would not buy those papers in such huge numbers."

You might say that, far from protecting "standards of social behaviour" (the Ayatollah means sticking to sex within marriage, preferably in the missionary position), the press undermines them by giving the impression that everyone is at it. But leave that and other non sequiturs aside. The Ayatollah thinks the press should act as a kind of public morality police, perfectly happy to visit "shame" not only on the transgressors but on their children and other relatives. I can just about tolerate honest prurience, but this I find chilling. If neither parliament nor the courts can protect privacy, we shall be left with Ayatollah Dacre's version of sharia law.

Censor sensibility

Dacre, though, should be careful what he wishes for. The first and still the best argument against censorship (which is what superinjunctions amount to) came from John Milton's Areopagitica in 1644. Milton opposed prior restraints on publication because he believed that truth and falsehood should "grapple" in the open. But once the grappling was over, he favoured prosecution of authors whose writings had proved "mischievous and libellous". Dacre may like to ponder the penalties. The "fire and the executioner", Milton wrote, "will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy".

Not in front of the kids

Pundits admit the coalition has turned out badly for Nick Clegg but say he and the Lib Dems had no alternative to entering it. I disagree. If the Tories had formed a minority administration, Lib Dem MPs, after open debate and careful monitoring of public opinion, could have treated each legislative proposal on its merits while promising not to deny the government its finance bill or support a no-confidence motion. That, I think, is what voters meant by "a new politics", and what they thought Clegg meant. Instead, they see the Lib Dems as a party that makes shoddy compromises to stay in office, an impression accentuated by ministers from the two parties claiming they had all suddenly become best buddies.

After the Lib Dem debacle in the local elections and the Alternative Vote referendum, perhaps ministers will air their disagreements in a more transparent manner instead of clinging to dogmas of collective responsibility. In Germany, ministers from different sides of a coalition set out their differences on TV. "We are not ready for that culturally," a Lib Dem aide told the Guardian. In other words, adults shouldn't argue in front of the children.

Willet work?

Very clever people such as David Willetts, the universities minister, nearly always make bad politicians. Most politicians circle an idea warily, asking how it could get them into trouble. Willetts seizes ideas as though they were new toys and wants to share them with everybody else. His latest goes like this: though universities cannot charge UK and EU students more than £9,000 a year, non-EU students pay £12,000-£28,000. For the former, universities must abide by government quotas, because public subsidy is involved, but they can admit as many non-EU students as they like. So why not admit some UK students under the latter category, provided they, their parents or some benefactor will meet the costs? Universities could then award more places within government quotas to students of modest means.

Put like that, you can see the proposal may be worth discussing, particularly if you're a Tory. But Willetts is saddled with headlines about "selling" university places to the rich and, not for the first time, finds himself in a blazing political row. The poor man is too clever to understand how his ideas will look once they have been simplified for folk of lesser intellect.

Moment of Maddyness

Back to Ayatollah Dacre's Mail, which is always mindful of the wider social good. In 2007, its reporter David Jones confessed to "niggling doubts" about Kate and Gerry McCann, created by the latter's "strangely breezy and matter-of-fact weblog". But, he instructed, if the McCanns were guilty of their daughter's disappearance (as was then wrongly alleged), "The consequences would be harmful almost beyond measure. Such an incredible outcome would forever destroy the inherent faith we place in outwardly decent, caring parents . . . and with it our very trust in . . . human nature." Now, having read Kate's newly published account, he accepts the McCanns as "loving parents" and is "certainly sorry that I ever thought otherwise". So that's all right then.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.