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Resist the tyranny of the web and tabloids

John Lloyd writes:

Asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday if he thought the Glasgow-based Sunday Herald had been right, this past weekend, to publish the identity of an errant, married footballer, Alec Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, voiced conventional wisdom. "There's an increasing view," he said, "that it's untenable to (inject publication) – injunctions look increasingly impractical in the modern world."

He is right that this view is increasing. The fevered speculation and revelation of the past week has asserted, at least implicitly, that those who seek to prevent publication of details of their private lives – almost invariably sexual affairs – are engaged at best in fools' errands. Most journalists' comments on fellow journalist Andrew Marr’s use of a super-injunction to suppress details of an affair accused him of hypocrisy (about what?).

More important, and much more radical, were the parliamentary interventions last week in the Lords by Lord Stoneham, a Liberal Democrat peer, and in the Commons yesterday by Lib Dem MP John Hemming. Lord Stoneham argued that Sir Fred Goodwin, former head of Royal Bank of Scotland whom he had used parliamentary privilege to name, had no right to injunct information about an affair with a bank colleague. The bank, said Lord Stoneham, had been bailed out by taxpayers: who thus had a "direct interest" in the affair's details. By extension, this would mean anyone whose income depends on the taxpayer – the head of a nationalised bank, a single mother on benefits and of course all politicians – has no right to privacy: a very large claim.

Mr Hemming, who named the errant footballer as Manchester United's Ryan Giggs, said it was scandalous that rich people could buy privacy, and that poor people might be locked up for flouting the injunctions they obtained – which seemed to foreshadow a generally looser legal regime for those of modest means.

These engines – the internet's lightning ability to discover and transmit secrets; Lord Stoneham’s law of taxpayer's right of surveillance of state-paid citizens; Mr Hemming's populist call for protection of the poor's right to broadcast gossip and the ever-present power of human curiosity about our fellows' (especially intimate) activities – unite in support of Mr Salmond's and Mr Hunt's remarks. This is a new era. Live with it.

But two ideals have clashed: one taking its base within the internet, one opposed to the internet’s revelatory potential. The first argues, with the blogger (Prettier Than Napoleon) Amber Taylor, that the new openness will "result in a more accurate and humanised representation: we are who we are, warts and all, and the exposure of actions and beliefs that we now keep under wraps will result in changes in social norms". The second, posed by the George Washington University law professor Daniel Solove (against whom Ms Taylor was arguing) says that privacy allows us anonymity, and if that disappears "we lose a lot of freedom that we currently enjoy in our daily lives".

The right to privacy jousts hourly with the right to free expression: no question that the latter is winning. But resignation is premature, and wrong. Privacy has, in the recent past, been most obviously hated by tyrants: to assert a private life was a direct threat to Stalinist and Maoist regimes. We now face a tyranny by tabloid and by internet: it is not murderous, but it has large dangers.

Most of all, it threatens the space that people need to sort out their thoughts, fantasies, intimate and close relationships, private financial and other affairs. Ms Taylor's ideal – of living transparently without the burden of secrecy, hypocrisy and lies – is more likely to be a dystopia of some against all, as the powerful and ruthless comb what had been secret for personal gain or cruel pleasure.

The influential and celebrated, the major users of injunctions, are bad champions of privacy because they are easily represented as self-serving and rich enough to pay to thwart popular curiosity. But champions they are all the same: for a universal public right to private space, in which we must be free to do what the law allows, and take – or escape – the consequences. The gaze of strangers will destroy, not renew.

This article was first published in the Financial Times on 23rd May 2011