I wrote a piece a little while ago about Julian Assange – you can find it here – which amongst other things suggested that just because you consider someone a hero for one part of their lives doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily something other than a hero in another way. Events this week have reminded me of the other side of that coin: that just because someone might be seen as a villain in one way, doesn’t mean that everything about them is despicable. What’s more, if we believe in human rights, it doesn’t mean that ‘villains’ shouldn’t have those human rights. One particular such ‘villain’ has been in the news these last few days: Max Mosley.
Before I say anything more, I need to make it clear that my background is very left wing – I have grandparents, step-grandparents and great aunts who were communists. I myself had the nickname ‘commie bastard’ at college – though all that really meant is that I was the only member of the Labour Party at what was then the extremely right-wing Pembroke College Cambridge. As such, Max Mosley is someone who I ‘instinctively’ look on with extreme distaste. His father, Oswald Mosley, was a particular figure of hate for my family – in case anyone is unaware, Oswald Mosley was the founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists, and a supporter of Hitler. Hitler was a guest at his wedding. I still consider myself to be very much on the political left. Max Mosley, not just as his father’s son, but as someone who represents extreme wealth and the excesses connected with it, is not someone that I have anything but instinctive dislike for.
…but just as even ‘heroes’ like Assange need to be subject to the law when appropriate (as I argued before), even those you dislike intensely need to be accorded rights. Indeed, one of the key tests of whether you really believe in human rights is whether you really grant them to those you dislike. Many people have been tested on those grounds over the last months and hardly come up smelling of roses – the attitude to the death of Gaddafi is perhaps the most extreme example. For Max Mosley, the test is simpler and should be less taxing. However much I might dislike what he seems to represent, he still deserves privacy. What the newspapers did to him was, in my view, unacceptable – and he was right to fight against them. Personally I thought he came across well in the Leveson inquiry. It wasn’t Mosley that looked like the villain here – and his work in supporting other victims of phone hacking is something to be applauded too.
…which brings me onto the other ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ of the last week: the press. If you listened as I did to the testimony of the many witnesses to the Leveson inquiry, from Mosley himself to the celebs like Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Sienna Miller, to JK Rowling, to the families of Milly Dowler and Madelaine McCann, and to Margaret Watson, it’s hard not to see the press as venal, vicious, unprincipled and unfair. The instinctive reaction again is to punish them, to clamp down on them, to restrict them. And yet that’s not the whole story either – because we also have to remember how the story itself broke, though the work of the Guardian. We have to remember how the MPs’ expenses scandal was revealed by the Telegraph. How the cricket match-fixing scandal was uncovered by the now-departed News of the World. Just as Assange and Mosley could be heroes in one way and might be villains in another, so are the press. We need to look at the balance, and remember both sides to all their stories.
How is that balance maintained? The most important thing to remember is that it’s a dynamic balance, and that we have to remain vigilant. Don’t overreact – and that’s an easy temptation particularly in relation to the press, and if the stories about Max Mosley planning to sue Google are true, they would be a prime example of such overreaction, and something I plan to write about separately – but don’t be afraid of action either. Even in terms of the press, there are two currently very different things going on right now. At the same time as any action emerging from Leveson might produce restrictions on press activity in relation to privacy, the potential changes to the draft defamation bill might produce greater freedom for the press in relation to defamation. Instinctively, again, that might be right for people of my political perspective – defamation law has often been seen as a tool for the rich, while privacy should (though often isn’t, as I’ve argued before) be something of as much interest to the ‘insignificant’ as the rich and famous. Both the potential shifts in balance, from Leveson and from changes to libel law, could well be appropriate. Let’s hope it works out that way.