A senior politician resigns over what he described as “personal issues in my private life”.  It is not suggested that these issues give rise to any “public interest” but the following day the press headlines tell millions of readers what the issues are.  The individuals whose private lives are involved have not given consent.    This is, in essence, the Alan Johnson story.  Have the newspapers and broadcaster who have set out the “personal  issues” for their readers acted responsibly and in accordance with the PCC Code?

Mr Johnson is a Member of Parliament and former Government minister – once spoken of as possible Prime Minister.  The new leader of his party, Ed Miliband, appointed him Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.   On 20 January 2011 it was announced that he had resigned.  According to his resignation letter

“I have decided to resign from the shadow cabinet for personal reasons to do with my family. I have found it difficult to cope with these personal issues in my private life whilst carrying out an important frontbench role. I am grateful to Ed Miliband for giving me the opportunity to serve as shadow chancellor of the exchequer.

Initial reports in the mainstream media confined themselves to variations on the formula that Mr Johnson had “quit over his personal life”.  However, some bloggers were already speculating that Mr Johnson himself had had an affair.  But a few hours later, a different version came into the public domain.

For example, the “Daily Telegraph” headline was “Alan Johnson stands down over claims of wife’s love affair with her husband’s bodyguard”  telling us that

Alan Johnson has resigned as shadow chancellor after less than four months in the job amid claims that his wife has been having an affair with her husband’s former police protection officer.

Similar accounts appeared in the the Guardian, the Mirror and on BBC News who reported that

Sources told the BBC the police constable had not been relieved from duty or suspended but aspects of his conduct had been referred to the standards directorate, which investigates complaints about conduct.

Everyone treated this as a proper story to run.  The question is: why? According to the PCC Code the public interest includes

i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety.
ii) Protecting public health and safety.
iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

It is difficult to see how any of these apply.  As far as we are aware, Mrs Johnson holds no public office and has not discussed her private life in the media.   The matter does not contribute to any “debate of general interest” in relation to either her or Mr Johnson.   Her own relationships are plainly private.

[Update]  On 22 January the “Daily Mail” named the police officer and stated that he had “confessed after being confronted” by superiors.  It added further private information about the officer and Mr and Mrs Johnson.

His own marriage collapsed up to two years ago – before he became involved with 47-year-old Mrs Johnson. The affair is said to be over but the Johnsons’ marriage has been damaged beyond repair.

The article was accompanied by a photograph of a wholly uninvolved third party – namely the ex-wife of the police officer – who was also named.   There was also a photograph of Mrs Johnson on her way to pick her son up from school.

If Mr Johnson had made the resignation statement which he made because, for example, a close member of his family was very ill it seems obvious that the disclosure of the nature of the illness would not be justified in the public interest.  Why is the position in this case any different?

Of course, the story is of interest to the public, it puts an important political story in context and tells us something about the thought processes of a public figure.  None of these factors provide an adequate legal justification for disclosing Mrs Johnson’s private information.

Two other possible justifications for such disclosure might be suggested.

First, that the story is relevant to Mr Johnson’ ability to do an important public job.  We do not think that this is sufficient.  Mr Johnson has resigned from his job for what he has made clear are reasons relating to his “private and family life”.   His wife’s private life is not relevant to his ability to perform his role as an MP or to the way in which he has previously performed his jobs in government or opposition.

Secondly, it might be said that the fact that the alleged “affair” involved a police officer assigned to protect the Johnson family makes it a proper matter to disclose in the public interest.  This argument seems to us to be more compelling.   The officer in question is a public official and is, apparently, now subject to official investigation.   This is obviously relevant to this officer’s ability to carry out a “protection” job.   There is, therefore, an argument for disclosing the “fact of” any relationship between a politician’s wife and such a police officer.  There would, however, be no basis whatever for disclosing anything more – for example, any details of the relationship.  [Update] It is very difficult to understand how reporting information about this officer could justify the taking (apparently in the street and without consent) and publication of a photograph of the officer’s former wife.

The point is not legally clear cut.  If Mrs Johnson had sought a privacy injunction it seems to us that the outcome of the case would not have been a foregone conclusion.  It is interesting that, in contrast to the uncertain legal position, the media appear to have taken the view that there was no basis for an objection to the disclosure of Mrs Johnson’s private information.