Privacy, the press and happy hypocrites

It would not be so hard to legislate, but maybe we will all have tired of mock horror revelations before then
Click to follow
The Independent Online
We are all voyeurs. And on the question of privacy, we are almost all hypocrites. According to my records, only an elderly Buddhist gentleman in Wokingham, two ladies of Anglican disposition in Birmingham, and a Scottish dentist can be exempted from this particular national flaw. As for the rest of us, as newspaper readers, privacy is what we want for ourselves - but not for anybody else.

Newspaper editors are only the executive agents of British voyeurism and hypocrisy, constantly dodging between what they know their readers really want and the demands from politicians. The ministers are speaking on behalf of those same readers (who are voters, too), begging journalists to stop harassing the handful of daily victims of the prurience factory - the pungent human morsels who have won on the lottery, or Michael Barrymore, or whoever. It is as if the whole country is addicted to chocolate; but trading in cocoa is agreed to be bad.

The view in newspaper offices is that no great harm is done, and much merriment is had over the Sunday morning duvet, and that politicians should butt out. They have no right to come between the press and its customers. If people were really offended by telephoto pictures of princesses' nipples, they would stop buying the papers. They don't. QED, squire.

What this fails to deal with is the balance between the intense personal pain of someone ``done over'' unfairly by the press - the bereaved spouse intruded upon, the crippled actor snapped, the gay married man outed - and the much more diffuse voyeuristic pleasure gained by readers. I don't know how one is supposed to calibrate individual pain vs general enjoyment.

Yet some sort of balance has to be struck. Many ordinary, easy-going Romans derived a great deal of pleasure from seeing the occasional Christian subversive chewed up by lions. But we wouldn't allow it now - on the grounds of the distress and cruelty suffered by the lions, for one thing.

In the case of newspapers, the truth is that our enjoyment, as we sit in the arena, is a very dilute, insubstantial experience; we flick through these stories, mutter briefly and pass on, recalling little or nothing 24 hours later, by which time another batch of minor royals and idiot ministers' wives have been assembled, spiced, crunched and spat out by the press. If there was never another gay vicar exposed, then I suspect most of us would struggle through our humdrum lives somehow.

Who, then, should adjudicate between the strong, but minority, individual interest in not being intruded upon, as against the vague, but general, interest, in the results of media intrusion? If politicians aren't good for this job, then they aren't good for anything. They are supposed to be experts in social choice, balancing complex goods and bads. This task is rightly theirs.

All that stands between the press and the passing of a new privacy law is Lord Wakeham, that former politician who is now chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, and thus the high pandjandrum of self-regulation.

His speech yesterday attempted to define the limits, with particular reference to the Royal Family. It was an unusually thoughtful speech, probably the finest that Wakeham (not one of life's great orators) has delivered. But it was, in the end, unsatisfying.

Wakeham accepted that the press was well within its rights to be obsessed with the royals. With a refreshing grasp of history, he pointed out that Victorian newspapers had been much ruder about the monarchy, even calling for the Queen to be locked up in the Tower. This had benign results - ``the press was fulfilling its prime democratic function. It was criticising a Royal Family which was too remote from the people.''

So where was the line to be drawn? At the feet of a boy. ``Prince William is not an institution; nor a soap star; nor a football hero. He is a child ...'' Though he is the future King, he ``must be allowed to run, walk, study, and play at Eton - free from the fear of prying cameras. He must be allowed to make mistakes and learn the way we all did ... he must be allowed to grow up away from a constant and intrusive public glare.''

Well that seems fair enough. Most people would unhesitatingly agree; though a lot, having done so, would then unhesitatingly shell out a few pence for a newspaper offering exclusive pictures of the Prince trying his first cigarette behind whatever Eton uses for bike-sheds.

But why is childhood the final barrier? After all, when it comes to press criticism, the adult is likely to be more aware of the nuance in nasty newspaper stories and more obsessive about press snoopers, than most robust, unsentimental children.

There is a wider point here. It sometimes seems as if our residual moral feelings can be strongly voiced only in regard to children. They stand for us as we would like to be treated. Child abuse still arouses fury among people desensitised to other kinds of violence. It required a broken child - ``Little Irma'' - to arouse the full flood of feeling about the destruction of people in Sarajevo. Murders are relatively common; the Bulger one cut through because of the (literal) childishness of it. We are a sex-obsessed country, yet only paedophiles provoke much debate about sex-obsession. The murder of Rachel Nickell continues to haunt the country partly because her child watched it all happen.

So when Wakeham, searching for a line in the sand, reached for sacred childhood he was all but suggesting that there is no workable basis for an adult privacy law.

That chimes with the strong desire of Conservative ministers not to offend the press ahead of what will be a close-fought general election. But it isn't so. A privacy law is perfectly possible and perfectly workable. It would clearly have a public interest defence, and a strong one. But a sensible one would also distinguish between intrusion into private emotional behaviour and private business or commercial dealings - in short, between sex and money.

Unless a public figure is being deeply hypocritical (attacking homosexuals while hanging out in gay bars, for instance, or giving jobs to lovers) sexual behaviour doesn't generally connect to the public interest. It is pure titillation; in which case the pain caused to the individual ought to outweigh the general prurience. Corruption, theft and undisclosed financial links are in a different league; they are connected to the public interest and they are low in titillation value.

Will such a law be enacted? Newspaper owners and editors are currently looking in exactly the wrong direction. I think a future Labour government might well introduce a privacy law, though the party will probably try to keep this quiet before the election, for the same reasons that the Government holds back now. Meanwhile, in the brutal competitive climate of modern newspapers, asking for restraint (and hence forgone opportunities to expand market share) is laughably naive.

There is one further, perhaps outlandish, possibility. It is that we happy hypocrites will eventually bore ourselves silly, and that the fashion for newspaper voyeurism will slowly change. There is a stultifying sameness about the sex stories in most newspapers that may already be dulling the appetites of readers. Or is it just that someone's been slipping bromide into the Independent's coffee machine?

Comments