In the midst of all this coverage of phone hacking, I forgot that I actually wrote a piece for Oh Comely on political journalism and privacy a few months ago. It wasn’t published – the first draft was a bit too much of a rant for the magazine, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it – but in light of recent happenings I decided to put an edited and abridged version up here. You’ll have to excuse the slightly awkward intro – it was originally prefaced by a personal story, which I’ve removed.
Respecting privacy involves two things—first, not demanding or exposing personal information, and second, keeping your opinions about what you do know to yourself. It’s an exercise of tact, a subtle art that we naturally practice with the people around us all the time. When it comes to people we deal with face to face, we don’t expect absolute candour on their part, and we don’t expect that we can be absolutely candid ourselves.
Curiously, we seem to suppose the precise opposite of people we have never met, especially when our intrusions and judgements are mediated by the press. A quick glance at the Daily Mail’s website today reveals the following: “Heartbroken McFly star Dougie Poynter in rehab to get over being dumped”; “The moment Kylie Minogue breaks down while talking about her traumatic cancer battle”; or a few days ago “‘John will regret the affair for ever': Pauline Prescott reveals why she stuck by her husband”.
All of those stories are indicative of one brute fact. When we have heard of someone, but we don’t really know them or truly care about them, our respect for privacy vanishes. Respecting privacy requires some level of empathy, and when it comes to public figures, few of us really have it in anything but a strange and obsessive manner. When someone only exists to you as a flickering effigy of videos, photographs and articles, what lack of respect is there in reading more, in reading anything at all? Who or what is there to respect in the first place?
The media demands and exposes personal information, in a way that we just wouldn’t in ordinary life—and it makes its opinions known, with scant regard to appropriate context. Often it implicitly does the latter via the former. The sexualities, relationships, family tragedies—heck, even medical records—of perfect strangers have become fit for public consumption, simply because a sufficiently large number of people happen to have heard of whoever is in the crosshairs.
It’s the story about the Prescotts that disturbs me the most. The cultural and psychological consequences of our collective preoccupation with trivial celebrity gossip may be significant, but the application of this mentality to politics and public service is downright terrifying. Even self-described ‘serious people’ are prone to think it justified.
The drive towards absolute, no holds barred transparency in public life has a longer history than you might think. As far back as the 18th Century, writers in favour of democratic reform like William Godwin, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine advocated far-reaching, if not all-encompassing candour as a chief political and moral virtue. As the historian of political thought Mark Philp puts it, they assumed that “it is always preferable for people to express their convictions freely and openly.”
Living in a time of strict convention, their pursuit of candour was not about the public’s right to know. It was about bolstering the right of individuals to say what they really think, to live lives of integrity. So, Richard Price wrote that candour was essential to protect the right “that every man has … to profess and practise, without molestation or the loss of any civil privilege, that mode of religious faith and worship which he thinks most acceptable to his maker; and also to discuss freely by speaking, writing and publishing.”
In reacting to an oppressive, aristocratic society of manners, it’s plausible that these men overreached. At a time of limited religious and expressive liberty, the idea that you not only possessed the right to say what you thought, but that you were obliged to do so, must have seemed attractive.
We have taken that idea and run with it, in the wrong direction. We have created a new society of manners that is far more efficient than its aristocratic predecessor in rooting out dissidents. The mass media is a stunningly effective tool for shaping a moral outlook, and naming and shaming anyone who does not comply.
It is an outcome that was to some degree predicted by the 19th Century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1835, having returned from a tour of the United States, he published Democracy in America, which saw candour and political equality as awkward bedfellows: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America,” he wrote. Why? Because democratic societies are fertile ground for a tyranny of the majority opinion. One “must give up one’s rights as citizen and almost abjure one’s qualities as a man if one intends to stray from the track which it (the majority) prescribes.”
This doesn’t describe most of our daily lives. If we have an affair, or an atypical sexual preference, or use drugs, and we aren’t famous, we are largely left alone. We’re dealing with ordinary people, face to face. But politicians are dealing with the mass media, an abstract entity holding an ethical position that no real person could coherently occupy. This is a world where an article about Jacqui Smith’s “seedy husband” downloading porn can appear in The Sun, home of page three.
Sex, of course, is our main preoccupation – a subject which, absent any criminal conduct, is so obviously private. A Google search for ‘MP + Affair’ nets me 3.5 million results in under two-tenths of a second:
October last year, and Boris Johnson has moved out of his home after an alleged infidelity. Says a “friend” to the Daily Mail:
“Now if he drops his trousers with another woman — as he ¬definitely will again, believe me — it won’t feel to the children like so much of a betrayal of their mother.”
His lonely flat, journalist Geoffrey Levy concludes, “most women would probably say is what a man of 46 who has been married twice and cheated on both wives thoroughly deserves.”
April 2009, and Jacqui Smith claims £10 in expenses she shouldn’t have. It is front page news, largely because the charges were for pornographic movies purchased by her husband. Reports the Telegraph:
“The Home Secretary refused to say whether – as had been suggested – Mr Timney had been exiled to the sofa following his misdemeanour.”
Mr Timney is wheeled out to publically apologise for his masturbatory habits. Resigning soon after, in fairness for a variety of reasons, Smith responds to the embarrassment by presenting a radio documentary on pornography, which the press roundly criticises her for.
That’s the sort of irony that Sally Bercow, the Speaker’s wife, learned to appreciate in February, having appeared naked bar a bed sheet in the London Evening Standard’s ES magazine. The backlash against the pictures was quick enough for it to appear as a story on the same day in, you guessed it, the London Evening Standard.
July 2006, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary Cheney is publicising her book, Now It’s My Turn. She happens to be a lesbian, though the book focuses on her role in the 2000 and 2004 elections, as part of the Bush-Cheney campaign. A chorus of figures round on her as a hypocrite, not least of all Huffington Post contributor Jeff Dorchen, who compares her to Johannes Pfefferkorn, “a German Jew who, in the early 16th Century, converted to Christianity and became one of the leading anti-Semites of his time. He advocated forced conversion, confiscation of Jewish religious texts, and even what we might today call “ethnic cleansing” of the Jews from Europe.”
That sort of article is particularly insidious, because it’s reminiscent of those dangerous 18th Century notions about candour. It implies that public figures must not only let us know everything they do, but everything they think, regardless of its relevance to their role. And until 2004, Mary Cheney wasn’t even really a public figure – she was just a campaign staffer who happened to be Dick Cheney’s daughter.
The list goes on, beyond sex and sexuality— think again of John Prescott, mocked widely for disclosing that he suffered from Bulimia. Think of the public way in which politicians have to deal with deep personal tragedies: In the lead up to the General Election, ITV1 conducted interviews described as “tearful” with both Brown and Cameron, discussing the deaths of their children.
It is true that in some of these examples, the interviews or appearances were agreed to, even solicited, by their subjects. But the fact that politicians are complicit in this arrangement does not deny its perversity—rather it highlights the state of affairs that we have reached. These people don’t actually want to talk to us about their private lives—by definition they don’t even know who “we” are, the prime virtue of communicating via mass media being that you will reach people you couldn’t personally.
We have come to a pass where politicians will feign a desire to bare all, sometimes literally, to each and every one of us. It is a desire they cannot possibly have, so their words are robbed of any authenticity whatsoever. We live in a world where the logical response to the near breakdown of your marriage is to write a book about it and hope that it gets serialised in a Sunday colour supplement—where, when your husband gets caught downloading porn on your Virgin Media bill, you make a documentary about it on Radio 5 Live. If you don’t expose yourself, someone else will do it for you.
It is a problem for all of us. It partially explains why so many of our public servants are of a type—we only get people who are viciously ambitious, prepared to offer us an inauthentic simulacrum of their heart on their well-tailored sleeve. For those that do run the gauntlet, it encourages antipathy to the press, and frankly, antipathy towards the public. And all that means that, when it really matters, Politicians aren’t likely to be telling us what they really think, or what they are really doing. We are encouraging them to keep the wrong secrets.
Our ruthless pursuit of public candour has left us barren of it. There should be privacy in public life. To any journalists, I implore you; next time you hear a juicy piece of gossip, imagine it’s about your mother, or your best friend, someone you actually care about. If it really matters, write about it, issue judgement, by all means. If you just have a leering, cold-hearted fascination, keep it to yourself.