Filming Max Mosley

When it comes to matters of privacy, the very last opinions we should listen to are those of papers

Reading that the News of the World believed its quarrel with Max Mosley raised issues of freedom of speech put me in mind of those footballers who, when brushed on the shin by an opposing player, clutch their hands to their face and fall to the ground as if their eye has just been poked out. You can see why they do it - in that instant they might just fool the referee - but don't they realise how ridiculous they appear?

Freedom of speech requires us to defend many things we do not like, but covertly filming consenting adults in their own bedrooms and posting the results on the internet is surely not among them. That, to borrow from football again, is just bringing the game into disrepute.

Nor should we take at face value the argument that, little by little, judges have been creating a privacy law that will shield only the powerful and the famous. That might imply that the News of the World and its friends would like a law that protected everyone, but nothing could be further from the truth: they would rather no one at all was protected.

There is no denying we have a problem with privacy, but when it comes to such matters these newspapers are among the last voices we should heed.

The problem is that the parameters of privacy are changing so rapidly. The law has changed: since 2000 the Human Rights Act has established the principle that "everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence", and the courts are only beginning to come to terms with that.

Technology has changed: from CCTV and camera-phones to YouTube and Flickr, the potential for intrusion has been transformed. We had a vivid example recently when Google deployed cars with cameras perched on top to film our streets with a view to creating virtual online tours - prompting fears, according to the Telegraph, "that members of the public could have their images put on the web without their permission".

And the culture has changed, in complicated ways. One daily has just run a story about an actor and a model who were photographed together at a concert, then apparently tailed to a restaurant and the theatre - all in one evening - before they retired to his flat, from which the model was photographed emerging the following day.

Everyday stuff these days, and it shows scant respect for the private life of either party. But then you wonder, was it all set up by their agents to get their names into print? Ever since we read that Princess Diana took posing instructions from paparazzi on the phone while they snapped her through their long lenses, it has been impossible to tell.

The public has changed, too. As the Google story illustrates, people who are not famous can worry about their image and how it might be used - ask any photographer who works in public spaces, because they frequently find themselves in confrontations.

People convicted of minor offences are surprised and upset that this might be recorded in the press. And the idea that births, marriages and deaths are public events is being eroded - I have on my desk a copy of the death certificate of someone I am writing about, a document which, though I knew him only slightly, I am legally entitled to, but I know that many people today are uncomfortable with that.

And things are complicated by the trend towards confession and self-exposure in every medium from Flickr and blogs to reality television and magazines. By putting ourselves out there, have we waived our privacy entirely?

The line that separates what is public from what is private is probably more indistinct than ever, and you have to pity the judges and legislators who need to take their bearings from it. But we need not pity the News of the World. Like that footballer writhing on the ground, it could not care less what is fair or right; its interest is to create an uncertainty it can exploit to its advantage.

Burdens of office

London's new mayor has been in the news a lot lately, what with knife crime among the city's youth and the unfortunate loss of his deputy. You might think that, having resumed his weekly column in the Daily Telegraph, he might use it to enlighten his readers on these troubling matters.

But no. One of Boris Johnson's most recent efforts, filling the paper's prime comment slot, is an account of his Sunday afternoon at Wimbledon, delivered in full-on Just William mode, complete with gee whiz, gosh and a reference to Plato. His previous two columns dealt with the story of Tariq Aziz's cigar box and bicycle helmets.

Even by his own airy standards, this is the purest froth, and for this, according to the Evening Standard and others, the Telegraph's bosses are paying no less than £250,000 per annum. No doubt they, too, are enjoying the joke.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’