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Daily View: Fred Goodwin's love life and public interest

Clare Spencer | 12:02 UK time, Friday, 20 May 2011

Following the partial lifting of an order granting anonymity to ex-Royal Bank of Scotland boss Sir Fred Goodwin related to a "sexual relationship" commentators look at the concept of public interest.

In the Guardian Simon Jenkins says the attempt of the High Court to guard privacy through court injunctions "began to crumble yesterday". He looks at the negative impact for high profile people:

"Being hounded by the British press is one of the most unpleasant experiences short of physical assault. It is the tax that a free society imposes on celebrity. In the case of politicians it is an ordeal which they must undergo as the price of office, indeed they must in some degree anticipate it. Those who go into public life must possess a strain of masochism. When the ordeal is unfair it should be regarded as just one of life's nasty accidents. When it is disproportionate punishment for a mishap, gaffe, peccadillo or insensitive remark, it is crude accountability. The justification is perhaps that it may compensate for more serious offences that pass unpunished. If we cannot nail a minister for wrecking the economy, at least we can get him for adultery."

Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming says in the Daily Mail that Sir Fred's injunction against reporting an alleged affair illustrates a worrying trend towards suppressing reports of wrongdoing:

"Do not be fooled into thinking this is merely a debate about the private lives of a few celebrities - they just happen to have taken advantage of the current direction of the courts. This is about something far more fundamental, and relevant to us all - the right to know about wrongdoing in public life.
"After all, with even the limited amount of information that has seeped out about Sir Fred, do you not believe we have a right to know exactly what was going on as he presided over a banking disaster which affected us all?"

David Prosser says in the Independent that the public interest defence for publishing details of Sir Fred's love life is clear:

"The direct cost of bailing the bank out two-and-a-half years ago was several hundred pounds for every man, woman and child in Britain. The indirect costs of the financial crisis, in which RBS played a big part, are incalculable. So the public is entitled to a full account of all of the factors that may have contributed to this disaster. It does not seem in the least bit unreasonable to regard the fact that RBS's chief executive might have been engaging in an extra-marital affair in the run-up to the bank's collapse as one of those contributory factors"

Mirroring this view, the Telegraph's editorial argues a free press is a vital check on corruption and sometimes the stories the public are interested in is also in the public interest to know:

"Several years ago, the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, stated that judges 'must not ignore the fact that if newspapers do not publish information which the public are interested in, there will be fewer newspapers published, which will not be in the public interest'. That was a wise observation. The tabloids may hand out rough and ready justice at times, but that is the price to be paid for the free press that has helped to ensure that this country has been, and remains, one of the least corrupt in the world."

The Times editorial says Twitter and parliamentary privilege make super-injunctions impractical and judges should adapt:

"If MPs and peers now make a habit of using the privilege of parliamentary sessions to challenge judicial rulings, the super-injunction ceases to be viable. It is to be hoped that this blatant fact will be recognised by Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, who publishes his recommendations for reform this morning...
"The judiciary should accept that the super-injunction is both an inappropriate and an impractical way to police the line between things that are in the public interest and things that are of value only to the prurient. Sir Fred cannot demand privacy purely by dint of having worked in the private sector. His character and conduct clearly had a huge impact on his bank, on the financial services industry and on the public purse. He had no business hiding behind a super-injunction and he should not have been aided and abetted by the courts."

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