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Graeme Archer: "They know the rules." But what are - and should be - the rules?

Graeme Archer is the winner of this year's Orwell Prize for blogging.

Screen shot 2011-07-08 at 15.10.05 We were discussing privacy yesterday - for obvious reasons - and the discussion had moved away from the most recent events back in time to what feels already like a far-off age, when there was a concept of who was “fair game” to have their lives investigated, reviewed and gone over in public. I mentioned my pity for a politician who had been at the receiving end of a campaign of blogosphere-generated innuendo, when my friend threw himself back in his chair and declared: “Oh come on. They know the rules”.

His forcefulness that someone - anyone - in public life (and you certainly don’t get much more public than by being a politician) had signed up to a pact which involved involuntary, full disclosure of every aspect of what, in my own existence, I would term “private”, hit me like a slap in the face. You don’t often get the chance to measure how far you are from received opinion: I learnt a lesson that morning. I understand now why my other half urged me to think carefully when I applied to be on the Conservative Party approved list of parliamentary candidates. Not because he couldn’t bear the thought of leafletting and door-knocking; his life involves enough of that anyway. I see now he was aware, as I was not, that, for most people, the private life of “politicians” is fair game. In vain might I say “But I’m just like you: it’s just that I’m campaigning for election”, were something from my past to prove sufficiently juicy to appear on a website. You “know the rules”: enter public life, and you are a target. If you’re thinking “so what?”, ask yourself: is there nothing, absolutely nothing, in your psychological make-up or history that you would not hesitate to share, with anyone who cares to look? 

It’s important to underline that I had these thoughts in reaction to recent events: I’m not equating, on a moral scale or any other, gossip about members of parliament with the revelations of recent days. I am as disgusted by the thought of private investigators poking through the voicemail of bereaved relatives as you are. It disgusts me even more than the revelation in 2002 that Government special advisers and the Labour Party had sought to dig into the political background of the Paddington Rail Survivors, in order to discredit them.

But reflect on the shrinking gap between public and private we must, because I don’t think that it is too outrageous an exaggeration to suggest that criminal hacking activities are the grotesque, pathological extreme of a culture which has forgotten that some form of boundary between public and private is the sine qua non of a civilised existence. What do Julia and Winston crave above all else, in Nineteen Eighty-Four? They want somewhere to be alone together, somewhere to be themselves, away from public view.

No-one can have an inalienable right to total privacy: else no criminal investigation could proceed. But even in the measured world of the court room, we’ve seen recently that boundaries can be over-stepped. We’ve “moved on” from talking about the Dowler family now, haven’t we? Of course they will never be able to “move on”. I read somewhere a justification for Mr Dowler’s treatment - nothing to do with competing theories of jurisprudence, but the opinion expressed was that he deserved to have his use of pornography discussed, since it “might” mean that he was prone to violence. I couldn’t help but notice that the woman who expressed this opinion was entirely silent about her own sex life. Nothing to see there?

If nothing else, recent injustices should help us be clearer about what exactly are these “rules”, for people in professions held in lower general esteem (is that a good enough reason to invade their privacy?) or who have higher public profiles (is that?), or who are accused of a crime (is that enough?) or who happen to be key witnesses in such crimes (yes or no?) than the victims of invasion we’ve read about in the last few days.

Plainly we will never have a universal theory of privacy which can apply in all circumstances, because any theory would fall down at the first obvious counter-example. (Theory: politicians should have a private life. Counterpoint: so how do we investigate malfeasance in public office?) Furthermore - as often commented - we live in an age which has seen an explosion in interpersonal communication, so much so that it’s a commonplace to note that Orwell was wrong: it turned out not to be Big Brother who’d want to know everything about us; rather we decided to share everything with him, and each other, without being asked.

The difference between Orwell’s Big Brother and our modern, blogging, let-me-tell-you-about-me version of it (guilty as charged, by the way) is that we ought to be able to retain some autonomy over disclosure. I can switch my account on Facebook off. We may never possess that universal theory of how to balance privacy and the right to free speech. It occurs to me that the point is never to stop prodding, and asking questions about where the balance currently lies. As we’ve seen, if we stop wondering about “the rules”, there are people out there who’ll push the boundary further than anyone decent can bear. 


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