Monday, 30 July 2018

Tini Owens and Cliff Richards

Tini Owens and Cliff Richards
By Les May

That’s not the sort of juxtaposition of names you would expect. In case you don’t know who Tini Owens is, I will explain that she is a 68 years old lady who has separated herself from her husband for the past three and a half years, and wishes to be divorced from him without further delay. Under the present law she will have to wait another 18 months or so. Refusing her application to the Supreme Court the judges commented that the decision was made ‘with reluctance’ and was ‘very troubling’ but that it was not for judges to make the law, that responsibility lies with Parliament.

The news that Parliament makes the laws and the judiciary interprets them came as surprise news to some journalists who evidently thought that in matters of privacy they made the rules. As the BBC has learned to its cost, £800,000 and counting, they don’t.

The reaction to both these cases display our broadcast and print media at their worst. Columnists and editorial writers have suddenly discovered the UK’s divorce laws are ‘archaic’. One can almost hear the chant, ‘We want no fault divorce: when do we want it? Now!’

Where were these same columnists and editorial writers last year or the year before that, as the accumulated evidence of the past forty years pointed to the fact that one of the unintended consequences of ‘fault’ based divorce was that it frequently increased animosity between the parties?

As well it might. If the you can persuade a court to rule that other party is to blame all sorts of goodies fall into your lap. You get the moral high ground. You’ll get your legal costs paid. If you have children and you are so inclined, you have the perfect excuse for demonising their other parent and shutting them out of their and your children’s lives.

Although I have written the above in a ‘gender neutral’ fashion the reality is that for much of that forty years it was usually men who paid the legal costs and lost contact with their children. To stand beside the Trini Owens case I will mention that a man I have known all his life has not seen his son for forty years and when the bill for the costs of his wife’s lawyers fell through his door he literally shit himself because he did not know where he was going to find the money.

To judge by some of comments I have read about the decision in the High Court by Mr Justice Mann to rule against the BBC and in favour of Cliff Richards one would think that we are moving to an era of secrecy where nothing about an individual can be reported, and governments and corporations can hide their dastardly deeds.

It is being argued that the Mann decision rebalances the two articles in the European convention on human rights that deal with ‘respect for private life’ (Article 8) and ‘freedom of expression’ (Article 10). But this interpretation relies upon equating ‘freedom of expression’ with the public’s ‘right to know’. Not at all the same thing!

It should not be forgotten that had the BBC simply reported that the police had executed a search warrant at a Cliff Richards property it is unlikely that he would have taken the matter to the courts. As is so often the case the intent seems to have been not to report the news, but to make it.

I lost any faith I had in the BBC as a news organisation in 2014 and 2015 as I watched how it dealt with the fallout from Simon Danczuk’s book ‘Smile for the Camera’. Anyone who has actually read the book with a mildly critical eye soon realises that it is a very unreliable document and, as we now know, contains material that is untrue. But that did not stop the BBC seemingly taking it at face value and running a story which made it appear that RMBC had tried to cover up a report about unsavoury goings on at Knowl View school by Aids worker Philip Shepherd. Anyone seeing the BBC TV piece would not have known that the report largely refers to sexual activity between the boys.

Seemingly the media’s belief about ‘the public’s right to know’ did not include reporting Cyril Smith’s antics at Cambridge House which came to light in May 1979 in a long and well researched article in Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP). To the best of my knowledge only the Rochdale Observer has had the good grace to apologise for this failure.

Attempting to equate ‘freedom of expression’ with ‘the public’s right to know’ is treading on dangerous ground. Freedom of expression applies to an individual’s right to tell others what they do not wish to hear. It applies to things that are true, e.g. ‘the Nazis murdered six million Jews’, and to things that are false, e.g. ‘the Holocaust never happened’.

It is implicit in the media claim about ‘the public’s right to know’, that what is being disseminated is true. I don’t want to know things about Cliff Richards, police raids or MPs, which are not true. But if the print and broadcast media are going to rely upon ‘freedom of expression’ as their justification for publishing a story they should not be surprised if we begin to think they are using it as a guise for pushing fake news.

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