Sunday, 27 July 2008

George Carey on Max Mosley: "strip kinky people of their legal rights"

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has a particularly dreadful comment piece in today's News of the World. It's about Formula One boss Max Mosley and his recent victory in court against the same newspaper. I thought I'd go through it briefly with a few comments:

"A dangerous precedent has been set this week in the victory of Max Mosley over the press. The first major victim is Free Speech itself. Without public debate or democratic scrutiny the courts have created a wholly new privacy law. In itself that's bad enough."

As a student about to embark on a law course, I read through the judgement in full (homework, you understand, not voyeurism!) and it most certainly doesn't involve the judge creating new laws. It involves him enforcing Mosley's existing right to privacy, under Article 8 of the European Convention.

It's interesting that Carey capitalises Free Speech. Was that his idea, or News of the World's? Because this legal case has nothing to do with some great ideological battle in defence of free speech. It's about a tabloid prying into people's private lives in order to shift product. And if he'd bothered to read the judgement, he'd know that Mr Justice Eady spent most of his time looking at the clash between two equally important rights - Mosley's privacy and NOTW's freedom of expression - and came to a very reasonable and nuanced conclusion.

"But, as a Christian leader, I am deeply sad that public morality is the second victim of this legal judgement. Unspeakable and indecent behaviour, whether in public or in private, is no longer significant under this ruling."

As a Christian leader, who voted for you? Where does your mandate come from? And why on earth do you get to sit in our parliament passing laws that we all have to obey, whether we're Christian or not?

As for this argument about public morality - come off it. Are you saying that as a result of the Mosley case, people will start queueing up to have BDSM sex with each other in public?

This entire case is about privacy - a concept you don't seem to have grasped. It's about people having the right to create a little sphere for themselves where they can do what the heck they like. Whatever happens in that little sphere is supposed to be completely detached from the public. The only reason why Max Mosley's unconventional sexual tastes have had any public impact whatsoever is thanks to the trashy newspaper you're writing for and defending!

"And in our celebrity-obsessed age this is a hazardous route to take."

Presumably, as a Christian leader, you're not a fan of our celebrity-obsessed age. Why are you giving the tabloids carte blanche to stick cameras into celebrities' bedrooms, and splash the gory details all over the web? An ex-archbishop encouraging the press to make money by appealing to people's worst instincts! Shocking ...

"In the past a public figure has known that scandalous and immoral behaviour carries serious consequences for his or her public profile, reputation and job. Today it is possible to both have your cake AND to eat it.

But a case can be clearly made for a direct link between private behaviour and public conduct. If a politician, a judge, a bishop or any public figure cannot keep their promises to wife, husband, etc, how can they be trusted to honour pledges to their constituencies and people they serve?"

If you were talking about an elected politician here, you may have a point. If it were an MP who had sounded off about truth, honesty, integrity; who had lined up his wife and kids for publicity photos; who had voted conservatively on moral issues in the Commons; then you might have a point. But Mosley isn't elected and doesn't hold public office, nor does his job have anything whatsoever to do with public morality. He's in charge of organising a sport where jet-powered lumps of carbon fibre go round in circles at 200mph. I can't see what public interest is served by blowing open the lid on his private sex life.

In his judgement, Eady agrees that when he had prison-themed sexual roleplay with five dominatrices, Mosley had an expectation of privacy. NOTW argued that although they breached that privacy, it was justified by the public interest - because Mosley was engaged in dangerous and violent behaviour (which can be a criminal offence even if it's consensual).

The judge disagreed with them - in quite memorable terms, I think:

"As Woman D accepted, it was painful – 'but in a nice way'. Although no doubt interesting to the public, was this genuinely a matter of public interest? I rather doubt it."
Mosley vs. News Group Newspapers Ltd, §114

(It's important to note that this judgement doesn't remotely affect the right of the press to claim a public interest defence in future privacy cases. It merely states that in this case, the public interest defence wasn't applicable, since Mosley's sex life wasn't a matter of any public concern. I can't see any ongoing threat to the freedom of reporting.)

George Carey continues:

"Max Mosley claimed that what consenting adults do with each other behind closed doors—however depraved, brutal and repugnant—is both private and harmless. I think that is deplorable. And I believe most people would ridicule his claim."

Again: come off it. Of course it's private and harmless. It happened behind closed doors, between adults, and in the long run, nobody was hurt - at least, if people were hurt, then it wasn't serious, it was with their full consent, and they were clearly enjoying it!

Carey is trying to apply a Christian view of morality here, where there is a divine arbiter - God - who gets to decide what's morally acceptable and what isn't. The problem is, Britain is made up of people of all beliefs and of no belief. Many of them will disagree with Carey's views on morality, and those people shouldn't have to live under a legal system based on one man's (or one religion's) take.

The only appropriate way to construct our legal system is to criminalise things that harm others, and permit things that don't harm others. Yes, it would create a morally relative society, where actions are good or bad based on their consequences, rather than on anything inherent. Yes, that might sound unpalatable to absolutists like Carey. But the truth is, it would give everyone the greatest possible freedom to decide for themselves what moral code to follow.

"This is a bleak, deeply-flawed 'anything goes' philosophy. It is also dangerous and socially undermining, devoid of the basic, decent moral standards that form the very fabric of our society."

In the whole of Carey's total car-crash of an article, this is the bit I have the biggest problem with. Surely the most basic, decent standard that underpins our society is a fair legal system which applies equally to everyone. But Carey is calling for judges to selectively refuse to enforce people's legal rights because they happen to be into kinky sex. Denying people justice because you disapprove of their private behaviour is, to me, far more depraved than a bit of harmless roleplay with a bunch of hookers.

Mr Justice Eady puts it far more eloquently than I could hope to manage:

"It is not for journalists to undermine human rights, or for judges to refuse to enforce them, merely on grounds of taste or moral disapproval. Everyone is naturally entitled to espouse moral or religious beliefs to the effect that certain types of sexual behaviour are wrong or demeaning to those participating. That does not mean that they are entitled to hound those who practise them or to detract from their right to live life as they choose."
Mosley vs. News Group Newspapers Ltd, §127

Carey goes on (and on ...):

"The new High Court ruling prevents press investigations into matters of clear public interest. It needlessly shackles the press and removes the right of the public to make informed moral judgements."

This strikes me as pretty rich. He's spent the whole article so far asking for a particular moral code - his own one - to be granted special recognition by the law, and forced upon everyone. And now he's pleading for the right of the public to make up their own minds about moral issues.

Partly, this is the desperation of a someone whose argument is slipping away from him as he writes it - but mainly, it's the confusion of someone who doesn't know what he stands for in the first place. Carey claims to have a deeply-rooted, firm moral viewpoint, but this article demonstrates that his views are all over the place. There's only one consistent thread running through this litany of self-contradictory arguments: the desire to use the law of the land to hammer people that he personally doesn't like. The rest is just desperate scrabbling around for any reasonably-sounding argument that might justify this bigoted selfishness.

"Judge Eady's ruling may have made legal history. But I, for one, fear the consequences."

I say again. Why, oh why, is this man in our parliament making our laws for us? Sometimes, I despair of Britain.

7 comments:

Brian said...

I largely agree with you. Good luck with the course!

Anonymous said...

What an excellent article. I am currently involved in correspondence with a few friends on various aspects of this case and much of what you say echoes my own views.I am firmly convinced that if Mosley had been involved in 'missionary position sex' the NOW would not have been interested. The thematic S and M coloured their judgement. And that, like anything else Mosley did in private, is nothing to do with anyone. Sexual taste belongs in the bedroom not the courtroom.Well said young man. Grumpybutterfly

jeremy said...

Carey's article is stupid, but your own response seems to forget that Britain is a Christian country, with the CofE much more influential in national processes than, say, the Catholic Church is in Catholic countries. (How many Catholic countries have a Head of State who must per force be Catholic? Or Catholic bishops automatically wielding executive authority?) The secularist line you're advocating will remain anti-constitutional, until some major constitutional reforms are enacted.

Let's not confuse how we might like things to be with how they actually are.

Anonymous said...

Er... Jemery England and Scotland have established churches, I think you'll find Wales and N Ireland had their state churches dis-established thanks to Liberal govenments. There was nothing Christian about the NoW's action.

My Christian church school seemed to like giving the cane as much as Max's lady friends.

Volly said...

Sam Harris, in The End of Faith (p. 159ff in the hardback edition) notes,

It is no accident that people of faith often want to curtail the private freedoms of others....because the very idea of privacy is incompatible with the existence of God. If God sees and knows all things, and remains ... scandalized by certain sexual behaviors ..., then what people do in the privacy of their homes, though it may not have the slightest implication for their behavior in public, will still be a matter of public concern for people of faith.

Steven Allan said...

Well, you're entitled to your view, Volly; Richard Dawkins would be proud of you. However, as someone who believes in God and belongs to the Anglican Church, I am very disappointed to learn of the man's views and I do not agree with curtailing private freedoms. In fact, I believe the opposite to be common sense.

It may be something to do with his upbringing. I do not agree that he is someone who doesn't know what he stands for, as Jonny asserts ( sorry, Jonny ) ; he simply seems to think that his beliefs should be enshrouded in the law and it's OK to print things in The News of The World so long as it suits him. I couldn't disagree with him more ( even if I agreed with him, if you see what I mean ) and I am not sure that his are the views of the masses as the ex-Archbishop seems to think; let's hope not, anyway. Of course it is not acceptable to do the dirty on his wife but that is a different issue.

"Max Mosley claimed that what consenting adults do with each other behind closed doors—however depraved, brutal and repugnant—is both private and harmless. I think that is deplorable. And I believe most people would ridicule his claim."

What gets me here is that this is not an argument. Even if it were true that most people hold a certain view, it's irrelevant; that doesn't make them right.
Margaret Thatcher was once asked about the fact that forty eight members of the Commonwealth thought one thing, whilst she was the only one that held an alternative view. Her reply was, in my view, one of the most
pertinent things one could say, viz. "Then I'm very sorry for the forty eight" . Spot on ! The Archbishop should be thinking for himself, as one whose job was to teach others, rather than go along with the masses. After all, what would he do if the masses became atheists ? Would he join them ?

Certain references have been made to so-called kinky sex. I dare anyone to define that. In Victorian times, some people wore a complete body garment with just a hole in it so that they could derive procreation without enjoying any kind of foreplay. The fact is, that's all that's necessary and the way I see it is that anything that goes beyond it fits into the same category and if that's kinky then I suppose almost everyone is into this kinky sex.

The bottom line is that Dr Carey has ignored the reason for the article, which was to sell copies of the News of The World to the lowest common denominator. He has conveniently used it to serve his own purpose and that, I believe, is why his utterings have backfired.

Jonny, every so often you come up with a brilliantly written essay and this is one of them. I find it difficult to reconcile two qualities of yourself : you are a LibDem and you have a brain in your head. I have to say that your leader is someone whom I see as more of a true Liberal Democrat in as much as he has the former quality but lacks the latter. But wait; there's Vince Cable. Oh well, perhaps "there's nowt as queer as folk" applies.

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