On Tuesday morning Peter Huhne, a second-year at Oxford, woke up to find his name splashed across national newspapers, his adolescent picture featuring prominently on its inside pages.
Peter Huhne’s big mistake, his unforgiveable crime, was to be born to someone famous. Whilst he was at school, preparing for his A-levels and applying to Oxford, his father, the former Lib Dem Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne, was misbehaving in both his private and public life. He conducted an affair and forced his family through an unpleasant divorce.
Forgetting that it’s generally a bad idea to cheat on someone who’s provided you with an alibi, he then perverted the course of justice, denying that he had been at the wheel of his car a decade ago when it was caught speeding. To covnceal a fairly innocuous crime – speeding and then ‘points sharing’ – Huhne committed a serious one, namely lying about it in front of a judge.
In the poisoned relationship that developed between Chris and Peter, the then-teenage Huhne sent his father a series of aggressive and spiteful text messages. Two of these strongly implicated the former Energy Minister in a crime to which he was publicly pleading innocent. The first: “We all know that you were driving and you put pressure on Mum. Accept it or face the consequences. You’ve told me that was the case. Or will this be another lie?” And the second: “Are you going to accept responsibility or do I have to contact the police and tell them what you told me?” It is eminently sensible that these were disclosed to the court. However the rest indicated nothing more than a dysfunctional relationship between a father and a son. Chris called Peter “Tiger”; he replied labelling him “an autistic piece of shit”.
Simon Kelner, a former editor of The Independent, describes the pain Huhne must have felt much better than any fatherless student can. “[Imagine] he sends a text to his son, proffering a hand in reconciliation, or sending a message of support, or simply expressing paternal love. A few minutes later, his mobile pings, and for a brief moment his heart lifts, hopeful for what has been delivered. But then he opens the text to reveal an implacably hostile response. Again and again, over the course of a year, Huhne put himself through the same gut-wrenching process.” Why did these anguished exchanges need to be disclosed to the court?
The Indy reported that the texts were read out “as part of an ill-fated attempt to have the prosecution case against Huhne thrown out.” That’s potentially misleading, because it suggests that Huhne used the hostile texts he received from his son to undermine the veracity of his son’s accusations.
Lianna Brinded, a legal affairs journalist, doesn’t think that was the motivation. “Technically, the text messages were not actually hugely important to the judgment, but they were relevant to the applications Huhne made in open court. The disclosure of the texts occurred after Huhne made an application for a case dismissal and so therefore circumstantial evidence, such as the text messages, became relevant and admissible for the Crown Prosecution.”
In any case, that is how the texts entered the public domain. Chris Huhne’s defence team, not the newspapers, put them there. However that the public should now be privy to all the messages – private messages – remains unpleasant. The newspapers’ collective decision to publish a deeply personal and wretched correspondence between a father and son, both under immense pressure, is morally dubious.
Jane Merrick, a political editor, spoke for the journalistic class when she insisted to me on twitter that “the media will always cover details of court cases once [reporting restrictions] are lifted.” But just because the papers were entitled to publish the texts doesn’t mean they should have done. Nor is it correct to infer that the public ought to be told the grisly details from the fact that they could, in theory, go and find them out themselves. It is a classic case of journalists purposefully conflating what interests the public with the public interest. And it stinks.
Clearly to expect censorious behaviour from one paper, not to mention several, is unrealistic. For one paper to break ranks would be impossible; in a struggling industry newspapers need to squeeze as much juice out of every story as they can. Collective action is the only way the industry can restrict its most odious practices. This does not constitute an appeal for the full implementation of the Leveson recommendations: state regulation of the press remains an ugly and unpromising prospect.
If the press could exercise the sort of collective self-restraint on reporting that it does when Harry goes to Afghanistan, for instance, then the likes of Peter Huhne might sleep a little easier at night.