Books: A Point of View: Private Life |
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Private Life : on the media's use of private and confidential correspondence

(S03E02, broadcast 14th and 16th March 2008)

"Someone's watching you"

London’s mayor Ken Livingstone has an aide who has recently been busted sending amorous e-mails to a friend. The aide, known in the tabloid press headlines as ‘Ken aide’, has a few questions to answer about what he has been doing with some of the money entrusted to him. No doubt he will give satisfactory answers, and I, to name only one, will realize that my council-tax cheque has been put to good use under his guidance. But he will find it harder to shake off the accusation that he has been writing besotted e-mails, because the Evening Standard printed them verbatim. Andrew Gilligan, in charge of that newspaper’s investigations into Ken aide’s activities, can congratulate himself that he has caught Ken aide red-eyed with lust, if not red-handed in malfeasance. But I wonder if anyone else should be congratulating Mr Gilligan. Isn’t there something wrong about helping yourself to the private e-mails of politicians, the private text messages of footballers, the private phone calls of ... But you fill in the blanks. And to the contention that nothing is private for the prominent, shouldn’t we be saying that privacy is for everyone, and not just for you and me?

To say that, however, you have to believe in private life as a value. I think most of us still do, although it may very well be true that a private life is becoming impossible to lead. But just because it’s fading from existence doesn’t mean that it was never vital. Private life is an institution, like the English language, which is collapsing too, and proving, even as it falls to bits, that it’s a structure our lives depend on. Ken aide’s friend, prominent in that official field of race relations which is now known as community cohesion, has been quoted as saying, ‘I see a time when race policy will be actioned with the sanction of committees.’ There could be no clearer evidence that the English language is in a bad way. But I got that quotation from something she published, not from one of her e-mails. If she had said it in an e-mail it might well have raced Ken aide’s motor, but as far as I know she didn’t. And as far as I know is, I think, quite far enough.

Most of us are capable of grasping that if everyone could suddenly read everyone else’s thoughts then very few people would survive the subsequent massacre, which would effectively bring civilization to an end. If you were living alone in a cave, you might just stay alive until the following morning, but only if you were in there alone. To live in society at all, we have to keep a reservoir of private thoughts, which, whether wisely or unwisely, we share only with intimates. This sharing of private thoughts is called private life.

Until recently, the concept of private life was basic to civilization. Its value could be measured by the thoroughness with which totalitarian states and religions always did their best to stamp it out. But now we have to face the possibility that the latest stage of civilization, this era of perpetual alteration that we are living in now, might also be trying to stamp it out. You can still keep your thoughts to yourself — nobody has yet invented a machine that can get into your head and broadcast what it finds — but if you try to communicate those private thoughts to anyone else you run an increasing risk that they will be communicated to everyone.

It doesn’t matter who you are, if you are conspicuous enough in public life and use a mobile telephone to transmit a private secret then you might very soon see it printed in the newspapers. You probably remember that when this actually happened a few years back, the press coverage was endless. But I can’t remember a single feature article which raised the question of whether the printing of an intercepted private phone call was not in itself far more startling than any secrets that might have been revealed. Partly this was because the press, taken as a whole, had already reached the conclusion that everything was grist to its mill. The British press, even its tabloid basement, could be worse. On the whole it leaves the children alone. But one way or another it will print anything it can get about an adult. What has changed, in recent years, is the range of what it can get.

There was a limit to what it could do with letters sent through the post. It couldn’t steam them open. In the reign of the first Elizabeth, her chief spy Walsingham routinely opened every letter that entered or left England, but that was early days. If the press wanted to do that now, it would have to steal letters faster than the post office can lose them: a difficult ask. With the arrival of the mobile telephone, things got easier. I can well remember, late in the last century, a senior executive of one of the big press conglomerates trying to impress me at some reception or other by saying that he had, in his safe, transcripts of mobile phone calls that would rock the monarchy on its base. He seemed very proud of himself, but for a moment I realized what it must be like to be face to face with the head of the secret police in the kind of country where only the police have secrets.

Things have moved on since then. No transcript stays in the safe for long, and now there are e-mails to draw upon. It’s been said that nobody sensible confides to an e-mail anything that he wouldn’t be prepared to see published in the newspapers, and this might indeed be so. But it could equally be said that nobody sensible puts his money in a bank that might be robbed. There are identity thieves robbing banks every minute of the day without even having to pull on a balaclava. Unless we keep our money in the mattress, we have to trust the bank, which might be hard to do, but would be even harder if the bank-robber could not be classified as a criminal. Pinching private phone calls and e-mails ought to be a crime, but somehow it isn’t.

And it probably won’t be. There are too many laws as it is; too many of the new laws are useless; and a law against printing anything you can find would probably be seen as an infringement of free speech, even though the unrestricted theft of private messages amounts to an infringement of free speech anyway. After the Ken aide e-mail incident hit the headlines, some commentators were quick to note that if you really want to speak freely in private, the thing to do is write an old-fashioned letter.

Few of these commentators noted that their suggestion came at the very time when Post Office™ — trade marked because it is no longer the Royal Mail but is now a business — is proceeding with its plans to close somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 post offices. Most of these post offices slated by Post Office™ for destruction are in rural areas. In other words, they serve small towns and villages that are hard to get to, which you would have thought was the very reason why the people in them need to write and receive letters. Post Office™’s rationale for this further truncation of its already abbreviated service reaches a height of absurdity which Jonathan Swift would have hesitated to scale, lest his readers stop laughing and reach for the arsenic. Post Office™ says that it all costs too much. The losses, it says, are ‘unsustainable’.

You will immediately spot that Post Office™ is speaking the same new language as Ken aide’s friend. The post office, before it was hobbled with its trademark, wasn’t a business, it was an institution. An institution is something without which civilization itself is unsustainable. It could be said — no doubt Post Office™ has a management layer in which such things are said full time, as a prelude to their being ‘actioned’ — it could be said that the old ladies in the villages, who will no longer meet each other at the post office after it is turned into a community cohesion centre, could always send e-mails. They need never leave the house. After all, they’ve had plenty of practice since Dr Beeching was deputed to annihilate the railway service on the same grounds: unsustainability.

And there is always something to be said for leaving the village behind, if you don’t mind waiting for a bus. G. K. Chesterton used to argue that the best reason for moving to the city was that in a village everybody knew your business, so you couldn’t lead a private life. He’d find it hard to say the same now. You can be in the biggest city in the world, and every phone you pick up, and ever computer you sit down at, is a direct pipeline to universal publicity for any thought you dare to express. Plato would have been envious. He devised a legal body called the Nocturnal Council, but if its members suspected you of impiety they only wanted to discuss it with you for a few years. And Plato never dreamed that his hideous Republic could be established except by coercion. We seem to be volunteering for ours. But nobody has invented a mind-reading device yet, although I have noticed that some of the latest mobile telephones are small enough to crawl into your ear.


In my role as a television talking head I had to sit for a lot of press profiles and I was frequently told by the interviewer, when I tried to hold something back, that the public would be interested. I soon learned not to say: ‘If you knew better than I do what interests the public, I’d be interviewing you.’ It would have been arrogant, and it wouldn’t have been true. The interviewer knows exactly what interests the public. The only failure, on the part of the interviewer, is the failure to draw a distinction between what the public finds interesting and what is in the public interest. The question turns on whether the concept of a private life is vital to the general welfare, and the answer is surely yes. In practice, however, privacy is usually trumped by news, and the ethical quarrel is confined to the question of whether or not the news is true. Back near the beginning of the twentieth century, Roger Casement’s diaries, which helped to bring him down, seemed likely to be a forgery put about by the British intelligence service, but the less likely possibility, that they were genuine, proved to be true.

What Prince Charles really needed, in the absence of a law forbidding the publication of private phone calls, was maximum publicity given to a phone call concocted by somebody else. If his call was real, it was grist to the mill. Or at least it was in Britain: if his future job had been King of France, his private life would have been as invulnerable to the press as President Mitterrand’s. But during the period covered by these broadcasts, it was becoming evident that civilization in Britain was suffering less from the accelerating indiscretion of the media than from the carefully preserved unfairness of the legal system, which allows an ambitious nuisance from anywhere in the world to sue against the slightest sign of defamation, and win large sums. Under this bad law, a book or periodical doesn’t have to be published in Britain, it merely has to be available there in some form and however briefly, for anyone from anywhere to bring an action in a British court against the author of the text that is felt to be offensive. The system amounts to a kind of libel tourism. In this respect if in no other, Britain looks like the dunce of the EU. No British institution is felt to be working well when there is a general opinion that they do things better on the Continong.