In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: What the… is going on?

BE warned: I am about to be officially offensive. For broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, has concluded that the word, ‘effing’, was not appropriate, when it was used emphatically by X Factor judge, Nicole Scherzinger.

Luckily, Ofcom has no jurisdiction over this website, even when I use the word emphatically.

It was essential to describing the law governing divorce for adultery, when I was a law student.

It was summarised by my tutor, an advocate who had just arrived breathless, red-faced and still in court robes, thus: “The only question is, Who the eff’s effing effing whom?” He did not bother to abbreviate the F-word to ‘eff’.

The law on divorce has changed and so has the law on privacy. We might ask, “Who the eff’s effing effing whom?”, but we are apparently not entitled to know, even when involving allegedly senior political figures.

At the weekend, The Mail on Sunday published probably one of its more intriguing splashes: ‘No10 rocked by secret love affair’.  It is apparently on a par with former Prime Minister, John Major’s affair with Edwina Currie and is described by a “senior source” as “dynamite”.

It’s apparently all over, but the MoS says it can’t reveal the lovers’ identities or any details of their affair “for legal reasons”. Those legal reasons are not given.

The reasons are not because the lovers are minors. The article states they are, in fact, middle-aged. That suggests there is an anonymised injunction in place.

That view is supported by the fact that former Mirror editor, Roy Greenslade, who believes the story is not journalistic hype, did not permit comments on his posting for The Guardian website about it, “to avoid wild and libellous speculation”.

One good thing is that it has exposed a myth about the power of the Twittersphere. It might be useful for relating gossip, but it’s pretty useless for investigation.

For that you need journalists. And they need the freedom to operate.

If an anonymised injunction is in place it could well have been obtained without the full matter being tested in court. There were clearly some grounds for protecting the parties’ privacy, but did anyone put an opposing point of view?

Are there any issues of public interest? Did this couple “eff” on government property? Did they “eff” at public expense, while travelling on government business? Did their alleged steamy sexual liaison distract them from important matters of state?

We may never know – and that’s the problem. We can’t be sure the story is not in the public interest without knowing more about it. Or should we just take the word of government and court officials, the way the Press tended to do half a century ago?

In case you didn’t know, but today – June 5 – is the 50th anniversary of the resignation – remember when ministers used to do that when they got caught out? – of John Profumo, the then Secretary of State for War. He had been having an affair with Christine Keeler, the reputed mistress of a Soviet spy.

Keeler’s business colleague, Mandy Rice-Davies, came up with the quote of the whole long-running scandal. When told a member of the House of Lords had denied sleeping with her, she told a court: “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

She was speaking truth to power.

Hang on, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

As long as the courts let us.

Francis Shennan is director of and Visiting Lecturer in journalism and law at Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde Universities.