A nation of voyeurs is not a pretty sight

From publicity-seeking Princess to unruly schoolboy, the line between public and private becomes blurred
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As a country, we are losing our sense of decent privacy. Last night, in the Commons, MPs were debating the question of fault in divorces, and many of us may wonder whence comes the right of that assemblage of self-promoters, genuine moralists, hypocrites and adulterers to pass collective judgement on our intimate affairs.

Everywhere the line between what is private and what is for public debate is blurred. A disruptive boy drives teachers to the edge of industrial action - that's a public question, involving serious problems for policy- makers. But when the boy, as an individual, is argued about on television and in the press, then his privacy has been punctured and his life changed forever. No one, apparently, feels uneasy - least of all his parents.

This week's most dramatic image of broken privacy didn't appear in the Independent - I'm pleased to say. The appearance of the Princess of Wales, as a thickly-mascara'd observer of a heart operation on a seven-year-old boy, filmed throughout for Sky television, marked a new low for manipulative voyeurism.

Not everything about it reeked. The boy, from Cameroon, was brought to Harefield hospital by a charity. No doubt it does good work, and no doubt it struggles to raise funds. No doubt young Arnaud Wambo, stretched on the operating table, was delighted to be helped by the Western doctors. No doubt the surgeon, Sir Magdi Yacoub, thought he had managed some sort of publicity coup on behalf of good works.

But the event was obscene. What was the Princess doing there? She said she was there to watch because she was ''a great lover of children'': observing surgical operations helped her ''gather information'' about ''life on the knife edge''. Bad enough: what would we say or feel about an ordinary citizen who wanted to push their way into theatres to watch children being operated on?

But she was there as much to be watched as to watch. She had a television crew present so that the world could observe her watching a private event. We talk about intrusion as ''stripping away'' layers of privacy and, sometimes, of clothing. In this case the child's very flesh was being opened and exposed in an event partly intended to help the Princess's image. And this, remember, from a woman who has repeatedly complained about her own privacy being invaded.

Having been suspicious of the attempts of courtiers to portray Diana as several gem stones short of a full tiara, I think we need to accept that she is a very strange woman indeed, who needs more help than she's getting. But as someone who, at least on this occasion, acts as voyeur and exhibitionist at the same time, she is certainly some kind of emblem of modern British culture.

For intrusion isn't something endured by a few famous people for the amusement of the rest of us; it has spread everywhere. A country once famous for its quiet, its privet-hedged, suburban reticence, has become obsessed by toe-curlingly intimate details of the sex lives of quite obscure people. In our papers and increasingly in broadcasting, we have become a nosy nation.

The other side of this is that many of us have become exhibitionists as well as voyeurs. People happily go on television and talk candidly about things which, a generation ago, would have been stifled in embarrassed silence, even in the family. The agonising deaths of relatives, strange sexual practices, fraud and violent behaviour - all can become the raw material for media exhibitionism. Rob a bank. Get caught. Sell the serial rights.

I don't know whether Lord Beaverbrook or Sigmund Freud are more to blame for the withering-away of shame: but I think I liked us better when we were a nation of hypocrites.

The important point, though, is that this repeated puncturing of the line between private and public creates confusion about the proper limits of politics and political debate.

Take last night's Commons argument on how and when divorce may take place. In almost any divorce there are public issues - equity, property rights, the care of children - that are rightly for politics and politicians.

But whether this or that marriage is tolerable is not for MPs. It is for us, and our fallible, private judgements about our fallible private lives. There must be a large space in life that the state simply leaves alone - except where abuse or violence involves the criminal law.

But it pushes and pushes. Because of the welfare bill implications of, for example, single parenthood, the moral cudgel still tends to be waved by the upper middle classes in the direction of the ''feckless'' poor. The state certainly has an obligation to limit demands on the taxpayer, and consider any perverse consequences of different welfare systems. But that is a financial matter, not a moral one.

It should always be approached in a spirit of modesty, even humility. Many British citizens have little chance of a good job, or nice housing, or a high disposable income; for the state to lecture them about how they get their kicks in life, or with whom, or what they eat, or whether or not they choose to smoke, is simply impertinent.

Sex is the most obvious case; and to be fair - Aids campaigning apart - politicians are beginning to belt up about that. Ever since reading, at a tender age, a letter in a pornographic magazine from a woman whose husband liked dressing up as a fully-armoured Roman soldier (''I lie there and hear him come slowly up the stairs - clank, clank, clank ...'') I've thought that human sexuality was far too strange and various for the state to have any view on at all.

Similarly, when it comes to divorce legislation, it is not the job of the state to promote fidelity; that is for churches, families, peer-group pressure and the individual conscience. Lord Mackay's legislation, a modest withdrawal of the law from private life, is therefore a politically virtuous measure, going against the grain of these nosy, interfering times. It is depressing that anti-statist Tories, however strong their personal views on divorce, have been unable to see it that way. If they stand for anything except anti-Europeanism, it should surely include the defence of private life.

Today, it seems almost a lost cause. The deluge of confessional television, ''advice'' columns and prurient journalism makes almost everything seem public. It is our free market version of the destruction of privacy in the old Communist states. And by puncturing the separation between decent privacy and the world of public debate and public policy, it is causing real damage to our political culture.

Privacy doesn't seem to be a big issue in this country. But it should be. The common view of privacy legislation is that it would help protect the politicians and is therefore a bad thing. But a proper privacy law - one that distinguished between intrusion into sexual lives (bad) and into business dealings (good, or at least legitimate) would help to rebuild the fence between public and private life. And if it did that, it might help to protect the rest of us from politicians and their impertinence - if not yet, perhaps, from the vanity of camera-hungry princesses.