GUEST COLUMNIST: Media seduced by tales of sex and power

LET’S talk about sex. In Britain and France, they’ve been talking about little else. Across the Irish Sea, the travails of footballer Ryan Giggs have dominated media discourse such that the fall-out from his extra-marital affair has led to a potential constitutional crisis.

France is not so much talking about sex as power. Since the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn for attempted rape, the spotlight has been on a media that apparently turned a blind eye for years to the politician’s attitude to women.

On one side of the English channel, the media is obsessed with the trivial. On the other side, in France, the media has been ignoring one of its primary functions — holding the powerful to account.

And here, on a windswept outer wing of the continent, where there was no sex before the Late Late Show, we may be exposed to the worst of both worlds.

The Giggs case has brought the world of super-injunctions to the masses. A super-injunction bans publication of an item, which is ‘super’ because the ban also includes any mention that an injunction has been taken out. It falls into that hole of justice not being seen to be done.

Usually, though not exclusively, a super-injunction is deployed in relation to privacy. The footballer is one of a raft of high-profile individuals who went to the courts.

Giggs had a six-month affair with Imogen Thomas, a former Big Brother contestant, who is described as a TV star.

While the injunction protected Giggs, Thomas was thrown to the media wolves. She most likely could not afford the £100,000 plus required to go to court and had to suffer the consequences.

In this age of social media, the injunction became redundant, because news of the affair went out across Twitter. Up to 70,000 Twitter users had access to the information. Thus, newspaper readers were kept in the dark, while anybody with access to Twitter was up to date.

Now the matter went beyond censorship into commercial imperatives. A newspaper had invested in researching the item, which it then couldn’t publish, while its work led to the news being dispersed freely on the net.

Last Monday, Giggsgate entered the political realm with a bang. Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming revealed in parliament that Giggs was the man at the centre of this super-injunction.

Parliamentary privilege was used to defy the courts, setting the two branches of government on a collision course. At issue was not a matter of great constitutional import, but the identification of a footballer who had played away from home.

Much of the discussion over the last week has centred on freedom of the press, the law operating in secret, parliamentary privilege, and the impact of social media.

Little comment has focused on the substance of this particular case. Everybody is getting their knickers in a twist over the extra-marital affair of a sportsman. In terms of journalism, the item lies somewhere between tittle tattle and garbage.

The affair highlights that journalism is under severe attack, not just from the internet, but from the elevation of celebrity and the dumbed-down popular culture. Celebrity is a devalued currency that can be attained by getting your mug on the TV for five minutes. In the prevailing culture, the private life of every two-bit celebrity has been elevated to a matter of utter fascination.

Giggs’s personal life should be of no concern to anybody. He does not present himself as a paragon of virtue. He does not express views on anything except football. Yet the culture demands that his affair be made public and one thing has led to another, all the way to an abuse of parliamentary privilege, a basic tool of democracy.

The culture is tabloid, but it is not confined to the tabloid media. The Guardian is the most high-brow of British newspapers, and it claims to favour a Republic over a monarchy. Its sales have been sliding over the last decade, now numbering around 225,000 daily. The day after the wedding of Prince William, it produced a supplement that saw its sales nearly double.

Hark, I hear you say, what’s this guff from a journalist about culture? It’s all down to the media. Is it? Is the media leading the charge to the gutter, or is it following? Most likely, a bit of both, and at a time when newspapers are struggling to survive, standing aside from the herd would result in fairly swift hari kari.

In France, the media is coming under attack for keeping personal matters under wraps rather than gorging on the detail. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was en route to become the next president of France when he was arrested on May 14 in New York for sexual assault and attempted rape. He is alleged to have assaulted a chambermaid who entered his bedroom when she thought he was out.

It has emerged since that he had a long-standing reputation for harassing women. Journalist and novelist Tristane Banon has claimed that Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted her in 2002 when she was in her early 20s. Her mother, who is a candidate in the presidential elections for Strauss-Kahn’s socialist party, told French TV that she had deterred her daughter from pursuing legal action because the alleged attacker was a family friend. She also said that the alleged assault had driven her daughter to depression.

In some sections of the media in France, the former head of the IMF is portrayed as the victim. There has been speculation about a political dirty trick, ahead of the French election. Others have suggested that the woman is inventing the story for blackmail purposes. Little consideration has been given to what the alleged victim may have suffered.

It’s not a scene that’s uncommon to this country. Just last year a court case in Kerry saw a procession of well-wishers queue up to shake hands with a man convicted of sexual assault.

Others in France have felt the brunt of the fall-out. Two women last week went public with allegations of sexual harassment against a minister in the French cabinet, Georges Tron. He claims that the allegations are false and motivated by revenge, as the women had both lost state jobs.

Either way, they do things differently in France. Politicians’ private lives are deemed out-of-bounds, but that includes any inappropriate behaviour as long as it was of a sexual nature.

A similar code existed here until recent years. Whether it does any more in the political world is a matter for conjecture. One area of commonality between here and France is the libel laws as they exist.

Any hint of an action by somebody drawn from the wealthy elite is sometimes enough to deter publication or broadcast. On balance, the culture here veers towards the British model. There are, thankfully, still some depths that aren’t plumbed in this country. Individual media outlets can strive to retain standards, but when the day is done, the public gets what the public wants.


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