Thursday, 7 July 2011
Public and Private Life
The current furore about phone hacking by journalists at the News of the World and the corporate culture of News International that clearly led to the abuses may not surprise those who have long doubted the integrity of the organisations concerned. It looks likely that some individuals will be held to account for the particularly disgraceful examples of intrusion into people's privacy that are now coming to light. No doubt there will attempts to limit this to as few as possible. But beyond the need to hold culpable individuals to account, it would be a pity not to also examine both the corporate and the wider social culture of intrusion that is implicated in these events.
It has always been a mystery to me why anyone should be interested in the minutiae of the lives of those with even the remotest claim to 'celebrity' status. I would like to think that is merely the creation of a few tacky magazines, but clearly people buy the magazines. Beyond this, gossips, curtain twitchers and scandalized hypocrites have always been with us. So if it were simply the domain a few magazines dealing in the trivia of the lives of actors, or retailing scandal about footballers sleeping with soap opera stars, then perhaps this could be allowed its place. But when the mainstream media starts to think that such things are interesting, and begins to extend the 'need to know' to anyone who is currently in the news, then certain lines are being crossed not just by unscrupulous individuals but by the public expectation of the availability of information. Few would actively want to be as intrusive to vulnerable victims as the phone hackers have been, but collusion by the passive consumption of information is far more pernicious. The driver for the gathering of such data is the sense of fulfilling a public desire for information for its own sake.
What lines should be drawn between public and private lives? It is worth asking the question in a general way rather than in the context of specific abuses because it then addresses the principles of publicity and privacy and the proper balance between them. It's not so much the often discussed distinction between the two meanings of 'interest' in what is legitimately of public interest, but what is implicit in the word 'public'. To what extent are you or I members of the 'public' and therefore on view to others, and to what extent can we expect to remain private, in our own world or that of a defined group? This is to some extent a matter of personality. It may also be determined by the wish to act in the public arena for a particular cause or to pursue a profession. But it might still be the case that there are areas of the life of an individual not involved with these public spheres which it should be expected will remain private.
I speak as one who has acted publicly in some contexts and therefore accept the public notice that this brings, but who also values the notion of my own privacy. I would go further and say that, in some significant sense, my 'soul-life' requires a veil to be drawn over some aspects of my inner self, though this is perhaps too metaphysical for the current discussion. But it needn't be the case that people who wish to remain circumspect about some aspects of their lives have anything to hide in the legal or moral sense. There is is also a debate to be had about the relative values of inwardness and outwardness in our society. A balance has to be struck and different individuals will not all want to strike it in the same way. Different societies, at different periods of history, have valued one over the other in varying ratios. But if we now live in a society where the balance is tilted so far towards outwardness that inwardness has no place to hide, perhaps the only surprising thing is not that the current scandal has happened but that we consider it a scandal at all.
It is true that many people today seem prepared to expose themselves to 'the public' via social media sites and that modern technology drives the tendency to self-exposure. Simply by writing this blog I am participating in that process. But at the same time the fact that I have opted for the weblog medium and have chosen not to have a Facebook page, indicates my own choices with regard to degree of exposure.
We all, I hope, still have the right to make those choices. There may be exceptional circumstances when they will be overridden by legal or other constraints. But that word 'exceptional' is important. It clearly should not include the victims as well as the perpetrators of misdeeds. I am doubtful that all of those who authorised recent intrusions will be held responsible for their actions, though I hope they will. But until we restore the idea that a private life is something that is valuable in itself, then the idea that there is a right to pry will continue to be part of the ethos of those who have the means to do so.