We may not like it, but part and parcel of the conduct of public business is the freedom to hurl vulgar abuse
There are three interesting things about Carina Trimingham’s high-profile loss in her privacy/harassment suit against the Daily Mail. One is the burden that she must bear – some £410,000 in Associated Newspapers’ costs, not damages, in just putting more bread into lawyers’ mouths. Perhaps some readers don’t weep overmuch when newspapers have to pay up, but the price of defeat in this sort of baroque legal game is constant for both sides. Constant, and gruesomely offensive.
Another is the argument, in Mr Justice Tugendhat’s verdict, that Trimingham “was not a purely private person” because of her liaison with Chris Huhne, and that her reasonable expectation of privacy was thus much reduced. Other eagles haven’t been slow to point out that this gets much closer to an American interpretation of privacy, which basically holds that if you’ve put yourself in the public eye (as a celebrity, politician, sportsman, mistress or spouse) then tough cheddar. Good thing, bad thing? At least it’s something that brings British law a tad closer to the law that allows the US-based internet to spew disclosure from every orifice, a force of nature that can’t in all common sense be denied or obviated.
And interesting element number three stretches back over centuries of English literature and journalism, enfolding innumerable stinking and stinging children of dirt as it goes. From Nashe to Defoe, from Pope to William Hone, from Cassandra and Bernard Levin to Richard Littlejohn, vulgar abuse has been part of the way we conduct our public business. Not via muttering idiots, but upfront, with an acrid twist. That’s the kind of abuse the Mail tossed at Trimingham. You may not like it when it’s coming your way, but it’s where we are and who we are. Or as the American monarch of histrionic vitriol, HL Mencken, once observed: “A man may be a fool and not know it, but not if he is married.”