I love celebrity gossip and scandal. But recent debates over CELEBRITY SUPER INJUNCTIONS raises important questions: What is in the ‘public interest’? Do individuals give up the ‘right to privacy’ when they actively court celebrity? Is the need for privacy stronger than the right to publish?
This is not a new dilemma. The cult of celebrity may feel like a modern phenomenon, but it exploded during the Regency period (1812-20), when innovations such as the steam powered press enabled the widespread distribution of daily newspapers and caricatures. The parallels between then and now are startling. Gossip became a tradable commodity as Gentlemen of the Press and satirists vied for the next big story. Almost immediately questions were raised about ‘privacy’, and the Duke of Wellington is attributed with the famous quote, ‘publish and be damned’.
My book – The Angel and The Cad – explores the blossoming of the tabloid press, together with the problems faced by those living in the public eye. It tells the true story of Catherine and William Long Wellesley, Britain’s first ever celebrity couple. They exuded glamour and wealth, and the public were intrigued by them because they were racy, trendy and exciting. They became household names constantly in the news. As a review in the Daily Mirror points out, ‘They were Regency England’s version of Brangelina, Kimye and Tomkat filling the gossip columns for more than two decades – and OMG! Their scandals would break the internet today.
Researching my book was a joy because contemporary newspaper reports were riveting, capturing all the drama and excitement of Catherine and William’s lives. The media deftly branded and packaged them for public consumption – She was ‘The Angel’ all virtue and goodness… He was labelled ‘Mr Long Pole’ due to this notorious sexploits. Their scandals were truly mind-boggling, with episodes of ‘grossest adultery’, obscene decadence, illegal abortions, slashed wrists and attempted kidnap. Nobody was surprised when their antics culminated in a landmark court case.
Wellesley v Beaufort opened in 1825, and the public were thrilled at the prospect of a courtroom drama with a celebrity cast. Evidence to be presented in court was highly salacious, with testimonies from people closest to the couple, including the butler, the valet and family doctor. Unsurprisingly, Mr Long Wellesley did not want details of his exploits in the public domain. With echoes of the current arguments over super-injunctions, he appealed to the Lord Chancellor Eldon demanding a private hearing. Chancery suits were often held behind closed doors and shrouded in mystery. But on this occasion Eldon ruled, ‘in cases of this anxious and delicate kind, a public hearing is preferable, because it is a guard to the conduct of the judge…as well as of public justice’.
Eldon was right to order a public hearing to ‘guard conduct’. He recognized that celebrities are role-models that set trends and influence culture. It transpired that Wellesley v Beaufort was an important trial that set a new precedent in English Law. It also sparked nationwide debate about moral standards and raised the question – is it right to treat women this way? It set a benchmark that helped to redefine the role of men and women as Regency decadence gave way to Victorian values. This shows that the airing of private matters can often be in the public interest, and the lessons learned in 1825 continue to resonate in Britain today. You can read the full story in my bestselling book – The Angel and The Cad
However, the debate about freedom of the press has been superseded in this new era internet technology. We are no longer reliant on the Gentlemen of the Press for news stories, because social media provides a platform for just about anyone to air their views, whether it’s the truth or not. As a result the struggle for ‘privacy’ will continue to intensify, not just for celebrities, but in all walks of life.