What do the former head of the IMF and an English footballer have in common?
Well in the last fortnight, issues around what private information is in the public interest, and what is not, have swirled around both men.
And as government, parliament, the press and the judiciary struggle with these issues, they should all have both cases, and cases like them, in mind.
The same issues arise with regard to allegations surrounding the private life of Sir Fred Goodwin.
It is often pointed out that what members of the public are interested in is different to the public interest.
The English footballer who is alleged to have had an affair with a reality-TV star, and then taken out a ‘super-injunction’ to keep the episode out of the media, would seem to support this point.
More of that below, but for now let us say that any argument that this is a ‘public interest’ story is on the weak side of this spectrum.
Goodwin is more problematic though, and his was a super-injunction that disquieted parliamentarians, used as they are to operating with the freedom from liability that comes with the protection of parliamentary privilege.
And here is the problem – for public figures, private sex may be bound up very closely with the public interest. It is remarkable that we should be surprised by this five decades on from the Profumo scandal.
The fact of an affair, infidelity or sexual assault opens a public figure to the risk of blackmail and other pressures. It creates the possibility of indiscretions, and may lead to decisions or actions that go against the better judgement of a powerful public figure.
Dominique Strauss-Khan has not taken out an injunction of any kind.
So, following his arrest in New York for an alleged sexual assault, which he denies, what is the former head of the IMF doing on this list? Well his arrest was followed by reports of other alleged incidents of inappropriate behaviour.
He denies all these allegations; but the episode is focusing on the protection afforded by France’s strict privacy laws and how appropriate they are in relation to the due diligence carried out on key public figures.
Thus far, that points towards the public interest being served by a lowered respect for privacy. Maybe, but consider this.
Some of the ‘entertainment’ that comes from the private lives of footballers used to be provided more regularly by ‘ordinary’ people.
Open an old copy of the Daily Telegraph, for example, and you’ll find reports on he titillating details of people’s private lives, and intrusions into private misery provided as ‘court reports’ – articles embarrassing, shaming and outing people who had never before been in a newspaper.
From a certain angle, it is ‘fairer’ to write about celebrities, much of the gossip about whom is manufactured or released with their consent.
Does it matter if people gain the same interest and enjoyment from a celebrity similacrum as they used to more regularly gain from salacious court reports?
But if the public’s only digestible account of human behaviour is an entirely manufactured one, and that account informs their world view – of each other, of celebrities, of politicians and business people – then over time that is also a problem.
A little disinfecting sunlight is surely needed, even if doesn’t seem to be in the best possible taste.
And what of Twitter and parliamentary privilege?
Parliament and the judiciary will likely find their own accommodation over issues of parliamentary privilege, questions on which parliament can ultimately pull rank.
But those who back strict privacy laws should note that the existence of Twitter, and other social media, means that tight privacy and reporting laws have unintended consequences.
As Jemima Khan and Jeremy Clarkson, who really were no more than friends, found out, the very existence of privacy laws and super-injunctions make it harder to rely on an earnest assertion of innocent conduct.