Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Wading in

Journalists and journalism students had a rare treat yesterday when Rebekah Wade - long-serving Sun editor and arguably the most powerful woman in Britain - delivered the annual Hugh Cudlipp Memorial Lecture at the London College of Communication. Fellow hacks and editors were agog with excitement at seeing the Wapping Boudica in action. The Press Gazette's Axegrinder reported that "there was a sophisticated lighting job and it was interspersed with professionally produced audio-visual segments" - and wondered if the corporate presentation style might presage some move higher up the Murdoch ladder.

Wade reassured pessimists, who might imagine that collapsing sales portended the end of journalism as we know it, with tales of Julius Caesar and the Acta Diurna he caused to be posted up in the Forum. Unexpected, that. So to was the admission that "We gave away 120 million free CDs and DVDs - of questionable quality and at enormous cost - just to rent readers." She (less unexpectedly) sang the praises of various Sun anti-paedophile campaigns and attacked the Guardian's and the BBC's "knee-jerk tabloid kicking". Then it was on to her real bugbear, Max Mosley and the effect his successful privacy suit has had on her colleagues' "right" to jeeringly parade intimate details of people's lives before the public gaze.

In this, of course, she was following the trail laid previously by Mail Editor-in-Chief Paul Dacre, whose colourful language and personal attacks on the integrity of Mr Justice Eady caused a stir last year. She took the same general line, that human rights law, as developed (largely) by the aformentioned judge, represents a severe threat to the freedom of the press, and thus to civil liberties generally.

I disagree. Liberties and human rights belong, fundamentally, to individuals and not to corporations. For a newspaper such as the Daily Mail to campaign against government attacks on privacy while demanding the right to attack privacy itself is the height of hypocrisy. Perhaps Wade can't be charged with that, because the Sun has never knowingly seen a human right or an ancient liberty without wanting to snuff it out in the name of defeating terror or protecting the children. As New Labour has built its surveillance state Rebekah Wade has stood by and cheered.

I wondered if she'd had a change of heart when I read this: "This country is full of regulators, lawyers and politicians eager to frame and implement legislation that would constrain freedoms hard won over centuries."

But no: she wasn't talking about Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, protection against secret tribunals or extradition at the whim of a foreign government - still less about ID cards, which her Sun has supported since the beginning. When she talks about "freedom", she has only one freedom in mind: the freedom of the Sun and the News of the World to run sleazy exposés of celebrities. Her reasoning, though - perhaps because of the audience - was unusually candid:


Our ancient craft is to tell many people what few people know. The sheer thrill of disclosure motivates the best journalists. And as an industry, we should use our collective power to campaign for the freedom to do so.

It's not so much about the public's "right to know", it seems, than about the press's right to tell them. Wade doesn't need to invoke the usual high-minded talk of the public interest in exposing wrongdoing in high places. Or she's sufficiently self aware to acknowledge that that isn't quite the game she's in. It's the supposed rights, not of whistle-blowers, but of malicious gossips, that concern her. It's hard to imagine that this weekend's exposure of the Noble trouser-stuffers would have been hindered by a privacy law, after all.

Echoing Dacre's call for the right to pry into people's personal lives, Wade complained about "being created by the drip, drip of case law in the High Court without any reference to parliament." She even described it as "the epitome of self-flagellation" (hee hee) that the Guardian had published an interview recently with Max Mosley in which the spankers' hero outlined his push for ever greater privacy protection. But surely that is both newsworthy and important - or does Wade imagine that if the press doesn't give Mosley any coverage he'll just go away? Or maybe Max got a little too close to the truth:

To live in a society where the rules are made by the [tabloid] editors, I think, would horrify most people. Particularly as it's very one-sided. They never hesitate, for example, to use completely illegal means to get information, such as bribing people with access to the police computer. So they can't talk about morality, they are immoral themselves.


There are, indeed, severe dangers in an all-embracing privacy law of the kind Max Mosley favours, with judges pre-vetting journalistic copy. But privacy itself has never been more in peril - not just from newspapers, not just from a government wedded to the collection of sharing of increasingly detailed and intimate data on all our lives, but from self-exposure and exposure by others on social networking sites and blogs. Government snooping attracts most of the criticism - but unattractive and illiberal though that is it doesn't occur in isolation. Companies snoop on their customers - and can be just as careless with the details as some branches of government. Worse, though, many people think nothing of invading their own privacy - think nothing of the consequences down the line when prospective employers decide to check up on their candidates or ex-lovers feel like getting their revenge.

I suspect that much of the widespread complacency surrounding the government's data fixation is caused by a collapse in the notion of personal space, the increasing disappearance of the walls between the public and the private aspects of life. There are many symptoms of this, from the use of Blackberries to ensure that employees are constantly in touch - and thus on duty - 24 hours of the day to the cult of the webcam and Twitter. It's neatly summed up in that evil little slogan "If you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear". Too many people take it to heart, twisting it round to imply that there is something dangerous, suspicious or anti-social about the very notion of personal privacy, that one's life should be an open book.

There can be few ideas more destructive of freedom. For if the only possible life is one entirely open to public scrutiny, there is no room for experimentation, no room for eccentricity, no room for difference (except for the jejune and approved forms of difference known as "diversity"). People's actions, and increasingly their thoughts, will be ever more conformist, bland and unimaginative. Society, fearful of idiosyncrasy, will stagnate. But it won't necessarily become more decorous; since there is no privacy anyway, bad behaviour that might once have stayed behind closed doors for shame's sake finds safety in numbers and publicity. Hence the Hogarthian revels of public drunkenness and copulation, the pervasive rudeness, the unselfconscious spilling of one's most intimate secrets into a cellphone handset while on a train.

In such a situation, a law of privacy seems philosophically anomalous, or at best futile. Yet that is precisely why it is to be welcomed. It offers something like a property right in one's own private space. Privacy - and the right to defend private space and private information from intrusion, whether from the press or from government - isn't just desirable in itself, it is also a prerequisite for any genuine kind of freedom. Which is one reason why an overweening government is so alarmed by it.

Of course, "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" rarely applies to MPs, who very nearly exempted themselves from the Freedom of Information Act and have made sure that their own childrens' details will not be made available to around a million public sector employees through the ContactPoint database (opposition to which, once growing, has become worryingly muted since the Baby P case, though it would not have saved him).

Jack Straw would seem to be listening. Despite facing his own difficulties with disclosure - it turns out that disgraced peer-for-hire Lord Taylor has been channelling money in his direction - and as keen as ever to introduce secret inquests for embarrassing deaths, the Times reports that the Minister for Injustice wants to review the emerging law of privacy with a view to making things easier for the likes of Dacre and Wade. Writes Frances Gibb:

Mr Straw’s unreported comments came as MPs grilled him over an interview he did with the Daily Mail in which the Justice Secretary said that the Human Rights Act was being perceived as a “villain’s charter”.

But it is not only the perception that it helps criminals more than it does defendants: the Act is now seen as a screen behind which celebrities and others in the public eye can hide anything they want to keep secret.


Such as their private lives, presumably. This is what how the Mail reported its interview with Straw last month:

But it is not just the issue of human rights which preoccupies him. A succession of controversial High Court libel judgments - most notably in favour of Formula 1 boss Max Mosley who won a libel action against the News of the World despite being exposed as serial user of prostitutes - has raised alarm bells that judges are quietly legislating for a privacy law.

Mr Straw shares the concerns of those who are worried about a drift towards a privacy law, although he argues it was already happening before the Human Rights Act came in.


They seem to be utterly obsessed with Max Mosley. It's almost as though, by successfully taking the Screws to the cleaners, he committed some unforgiveable act of lèse-majesté against the almighty press. Dacre and Wade clearly need the Mosleys of this world to keep them financially afloat - especially in difficult times, as advertising revenues dry up and, as Wade admitted last night, in 2008 382,000 people stopped buying a daily paper. Straw, for his part, needs to keep the editors at least partially on board - especially in difficult times, as the economy worsens and millions of voters look set to desert the Labour party. So it's perhaps not overly surprising that he shares the Mail's - and Rebekah Wade's - "concerns" about privacy legislation.

6 comments:

Brian Brown said...

A super article and spot on.

Edwin said...

Excellent, excellent. This Panorama of a few weeks ago on the US health crisis has an extraordinary scene from a walmart conference in which employees were asked to contribute to company lobbying in the cause of reducing their rights -

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00gvflg/Panorama_What_Now_Mr_President/

In the mad corporate world, the right of the corporation to exploit us - even in the form of making up narratives about us, as the media do - is presented as if it were some kind of human right!

Preventing them from showing us what happens in Max Mosley's bedroom (oh, yuck) is an infringement of human rights? Sheesh.

Straw is an awful man clearly and not on our side - would the Tories be any better, though? I would hope that the Tories would be on the side of the angels on this matter, if only because they usually have more closeted skeletons than lefties.

septicisle said...

I'm rather predictably going to write about this as well, but it's fairly obvious why they've tried to keep her under wraps for so long: she simply has nothing of any interest whatsoever to say. She might be a decent editor, but compare her to Dacre and he can at least make an argument, however crude and wrong it might be. She also, like most tabloid editors, seems to have a real issue with a thing called responsibility: she defends herself over the Screws' naming and shaming but doesn't even begin to imagine what the repercussions of it might have been. Same with the Baby P case - the public might have liked it, but the ultimate result of it has been a shortage of social workers in Haringey and a new boss on double Shoesmith's salary. Less safe children and costing more than before? That's quite a victory for the Sun.

Olive said...

Did the sun report Wade's arrest for assault on her fiance? I can't find it on their web site. Funny, that.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't give a dead rat's ass what The Sun prints but I do care that these mercenary hacks are, yet again, beating the drum of fake press freedom...the same trash talkers who have no problem demanding films be censored etc. Freedom so long as its ours. Wankers.

Elly said...

very interesting and thought provoking.

I agree in principle that privacy should be defended.

But like you say with private/public space becoming blurred it is hard to know how to do that without being draconian and censorious.

As you know I get blocked a lot online. People assert their right to be 'private' - or rather to have a limited public with access to their twitterings.

I got blocked a lot on facebook and I was only there a little while, and it caused me to leave. I felt the balance between 'privacy' (which on fb is a joke) and censorship tipped over.

On fb if someone blocks you, you can't see their profile at all or they yours. so it is like making someone 'disappear' and I find it disconcerting.