Clooney's Perfect Storm in a Teacup

George Clooney

George Clooney's overblown attack on the Daily Mail is the latest example of powerful figures hijacking serious issues to try and censor negative coverage.

George Clooney has responded furiously to a Daily Mail article alleging that his forthcoming marriage to Amal Alamuddin faced objections from his future mother-in-law on sectarian grounds. Writing in USA Today, Clooney accused the paper of inflaming tensions in the Middle East and suggested that the Mail’s journalists should be criminalised.

Between Clooney and Alamuddin on the one hand, and the Daily Mail on the other, most people would know where their sympathies lie. The acclaimed actor-director, coupled with Alamuddin, an Oxford-educated human rights barrister even more distinguished for her career than her striking good looks, are simply more PR-friendly than the paper.

Despite occasional public interest campaigns, such as outing Stephen Lawrence’s killers and attacking Britain’s Orwellian “secret courts”, the Mail is Marmite to most people, and kryptonite to the metropolitan elite. Its prurient interest in celebrities’ personal lives reflects, or – its critics would say – engenders, the worst instincts of its readership.

Add to this the paper’s willingness to provide a platform for those with outrage-provoking views, such as Nick Ross, the Crimewatch creator who claims that some rapes are more serious than others, and we can understand why many people see the Mail as a danger to public morals.

None the less, Clooney’s response is a bit much. The Mail’s main allegations – that Alamuddin’s mother would have preferred her to marry within the small Druze sect of Islam – may be intrusive and false, but they are not offensive to Islam per se. True, some of the paper’s window-dressing (repeating stories about a Sunni Muslim man’s penis being cut off by his Druze wife’s relatives in revenge for the mixed marriage) brings up a sensitive subject. It is not, however, in the same league as, say, the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed printed by a Danish newspaper in 2005, sparking protests and some violence around the world.

When he implies that different Muslim sects in the Middle East will turn to violence simply because the Mail has stirred up memories of bitter conflict, Clooney makes the mistake of conflating devout religious believers with violent extremists. It is very unlikely that, in reaction to the Mail’s silly article, a single stone will be thrown in the Middle East. But if it is, the true cause will be violent political extremism, not the Daily Mail.

Not satisfied with exaggerating the Mail’s influence, Clooney continues by exaggerating the penalty it deserves. If the paper’s claims were false, as Clooney insists, it will very likely face a libel action from his future mother-in-law, with the prospect of taking a significant financial hit if it loses. This is not enough for Clooney, who apparently believes that the Mail’s staff ought to face criminal sanctions. In his own words, “the idea that someone would inflame any part of that world for the sole reason of selling papers should be criminal.”

This absurdly authoritarian stance ignores the fundamental legal concept of mens rea: that in order to be treated as criminal, the accused must be morally culpable and not merely negligent. For example, if a tennis player at Wimbledon accidentally sends a ball hurtling into the crowd and it injures a spectator, he is not guilty of assault. The Mail’s intention in publishing the story was to sell papers, not to stir up conflict in the Middle East. Even if we accept Clooney’s gross overestimate of the Mail’s power to influence global events, it would surely be wrong to criminalise the journalists for any conflict arising. Such a conflict would only be an unintended by-product of their actions, and one which had a fairly remote chance of being caused by a solitary tabloid article.

Hence, far from being the moral pronouncements of a disinterested statesman, concerned about global conflict, Clooney’s angry response begins to look more like a personal matter. Yes, the Mail’s story was coarse and intrusive, and he would have every justification for reacting angrily, since it was inaccurate. Indeed, the Mail has now rightly apologised for the distress it caused. But Clooney was wrong to hijack the serious issue of sectarian tensions in the Middle East in order to bolster his arguments.

In the broader context of the Leveson Inquiry and Hacked Off, the Clooney-Mail row reveals a worrying trend of powerful individuals, who normally thrive on the oxygen of publicity, using serious issues as an excuse to try and censor unfavourable news stories. Staff of the disgraced former minister, Maria Miller, for example, reportedly raised the spectre of Leveson and press regulation to try and frighten the Daily Telegraph into spiking a story on Miller’s abuse of Parliamentary expenses.

Miller’s behaviour, of course, was much more serious; and unlike her, Clooney is not an elected representative – at least, not off screen. But if he and his glamorous fiancée are to retain their well-deserved place in the public’s affections, they should rise above tittle-tattle like the Mail story, rather than making mountains out of molehills.