Why privacy isn't just for the rich

The Daily Mail - along with several other respectable news outlets - brings us the story of Faith-Anne Lesbirel, primary schoolmistress by day and "kinky dominatrix" by night, whose unconventional second job has now led to a dressing down from the General Teaching Council. Found guilty of "unacceptable professional misconduct" (is there such a thing as acceptable professional misconduct?) she has received a two-year reprimand. She has, however - as the Mail was forced to report - "escaped being struck off." The panel also displayed a perhaps unexpected - and welcome - degree of enlightenment when it concluded that her essentially private activities did not make her a danger to children.

By most accounts, indeed, she was an excellent and well-loved teacher, working at a school in Milton Keynes. But she was also into things like domination and sploshing, and as "Mistress Saffron" advertised her services online, both on her own website and on a forum for like-minded people called "Informed Consent". It was this advertising, we are led believe, that got her into trouble. The report quotes the tribunal's ruling that "the reputation and public standing of the profession was placed at risk by your choosing to initiate and run such a website and indeed the exposure of this did in the event damage the school and the profession." The clear implication is that the "publicly accessible" nature of both her website and the online forum was responsible for bringing her activities to the notice of local parents, who complained to the school. And that her exposure was therefore her own fault.

That isn't really what happened.

Faith-Anne Lesbirel - who was also known as Faith Hamilton - carried out her BDSM activities for a long time without any of the parents or children finding out. And there was little reason why they should have found out. Informed Consent might be "publicly accessible", in the sense that anyone can view its contents without registering as a member, but it unlikely that many people would come across it without at least having a pre-existing interest in the subject. The same goes for her Mistress Saffron website. This is a niche area of the web, inhabited mainly by mistresses, their clients, and the odd tabloid journalist. Her two identities should have remained quite separate, as long as she observed a certain degree of cicumspection.

Faith may have been a victim of the Max Mosley scandal. Those who are in a position to know believe that she was betrayed by "Woman E" - also known as Mistress Abi, "Michelle" and latterly Mistress Kiera - the dominatrix who secretly recorded the goings-on in that notorious Chelsea basement as part of the News of the World sting operation. You may recall that the relationship between "Abi" and the newspaper went sour after she was unable to provide Neville Thurlbeck with cast-iron proof that Mosley's party had had a "Nazi theme". In an interview with Sky News, she said that she had never claimed that there was a Nazi theme - it was all a product of Thurlbeck's lurid imagination. Whatever the truth, it seems that the Screws pressed her to provide some additional titillating information to justify their payments to her. And so she gave them Mistress Saffron the kinky schoolteacher. Who was supposed to be a friend of hers, as well as a fellow member of the Milton Keynes dungeon sorority.

The story appeared under the headline "Miss gets strict with PVC punters" and was illustrated with pictures taken from her website. The paper predicted, not as is happened inaccurately, that "parents of the kids she teaches would go ballistic. While they’re reading their youngsters Winnie the Pooh at bedtime, their teacher is hard at it as a Miss Whiplash hooker."

The involvement of Woman E has never been officially confirmed, I should say (though the coincidence of time - May 2008 - and place - Milton Keynes - is striking). What is beyond doubt is that it was the exposure of Ms Hamilton/Lesbirel in the News of the World, not her website, that led to her departure from the school - leaving her out of a job and the children, to whom she was devoted, confused and upset. To the News of the World, it was all in a day's work, of course. As Clair Lewis - longstanding friend of this blog - says in a statement released today by the campaigning organisation CAAN, "some media people remain unconcerned about smearing people and the dangers this poses. Shame on them."

With Mosley's lawyers breathing down their neck, ruining the career of an unknown schoolteacher represented a much safer strategy than continuing to pursue that increasingly threadbare scoop. Faith-Anne Lesbirel wasn't going to sue them for invasion of privacy. She was in no position to get a super-injunction from Mr Justice Eady. She certainly didn't stand ready to petition the European Court of Human Rights to demand prior notification of embarrassing revelations. The most someone like her can hope for is a positive ruling from the largely toothless Press Complaints Commission.

Sadly, with celebrity exposés now threatened by the advance of privacy law we may see more stories like hers, with the press attempting to justify their prurient interest in people's private lives because they happen to be teachers, nurses, social workers or police officers. And while professional bodies continue to have widely-drafted - some would say discriminatory - policies against "bringing the profession into dispute", anyone falling foul of a tabloid "outing" may well face much more devastating personal reperpercussions than the fleeting embarrassment of some footballer who has visited a hooker.


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