Sunday 19 January 2014

Quelle Horreur!

Madame de Pompadour (1721 – 1764) - but is it okay under French law to publish a picture of Louis XV's mistress?

Out walking this morning I listen to New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik on my device discussing President Hollande's alleged infidelity. He repeats the line that the French are much more tolerant than the British.

This of course is so much hocus. There is no more popular politician in the UK than Boris Johnson (like him or not) and there is no other politician to rival Bojo's colourful and complicated sex life.

Of course there are people in the UK who disapprove of personal behaviour outside traditional norms but so there are in France - there are plenty of practising Catholics who would find their leader's antics unacceptable.

The difference is that the French have draconian privacy laws restricting people from telling the truth about matters which the politicians have decided are none of the public's business. Further, the French press is much too close to the political establishment - witness the embarrassingly deferential, pre-prepared question put to the President at his news conference.

It isn't up to politicians to decide what aspects of their behaviour are relevant to the public's decision about whether they trust those same politicians. Personally I don't judge politicians' personal infidelities as especially important but, if others do, who are the politicians to tell them off?

All politicians point to their personal trustworthiness as a reason to vote for them. I should have thought it was up to individual voters to decide whether evidence of untrustworthiness by a politician towards their own family might cast light on their wider trustworthiness.

Privacy law from Europe has already been used in the UK to suppress truthful reporting of public figures using prostitutes. I find that extraordinary and it raises questions about how other vulnerable groups, including people with a mental illness, could be exploited under the shadow of restrictions on press freedom.

We don't need lessons from the French about the public's tolerance - we are much the same on that one - but they badly need a lesson from the UK about supporting an independent and unafraid press, warts and all. And incidentally we in turn need a lesson on this from the US who find our acceptance of creeping press restriction alarming.