When J.K. Rowling finds a reporter’s note in her five-year-old daughter’s schoolbag, or is obliged to hide her small children under blankets in a car to make sure they are not photographed for the newspapers, press freedom has been stretched out of shape – disfigured, made horrible.
The question is what to do about it. Voluntary self-regulation? Hasn’t worked. Law of the marketplace? The source of the problem, not the answer to it. Appeal to the moral sense of the tabloid press and the paparazzi? Give us a moment while we die laughing.
Ms. Rowling has sold 450 million books, and freedom of speech makes her work possible. The photographing of her eight-year-old daughter in a bikini at a private resort using a telephoto lens, the stalking of her family and children, have nothing remotely to do with free speech. Or, as actress Siena Miller told a British media-ethics inquiry this week, she has been chased down a street at midnight by 10 men who had the right to do so because they were carrying cameras.
Elements of the British media are simply out of control, as Ms. Rowling made clear in her 49-page submission to that inquiry. The story is nearly as bizarre as anything in her wonderful series of Harry Potter books. When she was dating the man she eventually married, someone phoned him and, apparently posing as a tax-office employee, asked for his address and annual income. The next day the information was published in a newspaper. Her friends have been offered cash to tell personal stories about her.
So Ms. Rowling has used the legal tools available to her through the civil courts. She has repeatedly sought injunctions against publishers over false, defamatory or simply made-up stories, over photographs of her children taken without permission. In fact, on more than 50 occasions, she has taken some form of legal action.
It is distressing – sickening, really – that a beloved author and her children are harassed because she is famous. Laws on harassment, both criminal and civil, may provide part of the answer. Beyond that, any law that could undermine the freedoms that enabled Ms. Rowling to be an artist and gave Harry Potter life would be counterproductive.