Forget the public Interest - it's all about sex

A group of service wives were chatting. One said, "Tom's just got his Captaincy." Another responded, "Bill's now got his Lieutancy." The third thought for a moment and commented, "Well, at least Jack's still got his Privacy." There is a certain truth attached to the story, in that the higher one climbs the less privacy one gets. The recent Sven Gøren Eriksson episode and the speculation about David Blunkett have brought the issue of privacy back on to the agenda.

There is a certain hypocrisy surrounding those, myself included, who raise the issue of discretion and of reticence on the part of the media. Scandal sells newspapers and sells television programmes and, I'm afraid, I quite like reading about it. The issue is not one of legitimacy in the market place but of whether the market can ever be the means of determining what is in the public interest. Because the authoritarian alternative to a "demand economy" is worse than the supermarket, we pay a high price for the right to choose. And, incidentally, those of us who lament the passing of the corner shop ought to steer well clear of the shopping malls. Similarly, we pay a very high price for the privilege of having a free press. Regulation is not the answer; better judgement is.

To use current jargon, it is necessary to deconstruct the arguments. It is worth noting that the vast majority of media intrusions into personal privacy are to do with sex. If the tabloids were really concerned about the public's "right to know" they would spend far more time and money investigating financial fraud and corporate theft. Incomparably more harm is done to individuals and to society as a consequence of financial corruption than any amount of sexual mullarkey. Robert Maxwell was well known for sharp practice and for financial manipulation - an official report stated that he was unfit to be a director of a public company - and yet he was able to thieve millions out his pensioners' pockets without being exposed. Meanwhile, among others, Joe Ashton MP was the victim of a sordid press sex exposé. Unfortunately, Maxwell, Enron, World.Com, BCCI, and other financial disasters appear out of the clouds because, in media terms, cash isn't as sexy as sex.

Then there is the issue of why politicians more than other "public" figures? I really do not have any truck with the media's justification that those who put themselves up for public election are more legitimate targets than, say, media figures. Politicians are, alas, just as human and fallible as any other group of individuals and, what is more, are just as sensitive and vulnerable. The idea that we need hard, tough, insensitive individuals as MPs is nonsense and, by regarding them as more justifiable targets for exposure, these will be increasingly the types that come forward, to the detriment of politics as a whole. It will also put off women more than men. Estelle Morris earned a great deal of respect for her personal explanation of why she resigned as Secretary of State for Education. To admit weakness is, paradoxically, a sign of strength.

One also hears the curious comment that the MP "who cheats on his wife will cheat on the country." There is no evidence whatever that Lloyd George, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Gaitskell or Kennedy - all of whom had long-term mistresses - made less principled political decisions than did Baldwin, Attlee, Jimmy Carter or George Bush senior or junior. It is not challenged that had Clinton been able to run for President again he would have romped home whereas the stolid and respectable Al Gore could not even win his home state.

All this brings me neatly to the issue of technology and privacy. Plastic cards are capable of holding a vast amount of personal information relating to their owners. Mobile 'phone calls can be traced to remarkably small areas, and CCTV cameras watching our every movement can be linked up to ensure continuous surveillance. Anyone who has seen the Gene Hackman film, "Enemy of the State" has been well warned as to the possibilities. And what is possible will happen. It is not just the forces of the State that will use the technology; it will be bought by those with big bank balances and malign intentions.

Those still unworried by what is happening tend to say that, if you're innocent you have nothing to fear. Everyone has something to hide. No-one is entirely innocent and by naively accepting what this government proposes they are handing over powerful tools to any future government, however extreme.

The current argument is that we must accept these restrictions on our privacy in order to combat terrorism. It was a similar argument that was used in 1930s Germany. The manufactured threat to the country from the communists and the Jews was the excuse for every repressive law. It was a dangerous argument then and as much nonsense as its counterpart today. It demonstrates the lack of vision and of judgement of the present government. Apparently it can only tackle symptoms rather than causes. Terrorism in Northern Ireland was not ended by repression; the reasons for it were addressed and painful compromises made. Terrorism in South Africa was not defeated by force but by a recognition by leaders of stature that the reasons for it had to be tackled.

Terrorism today will not be defeated by ID cards and increased police powers. Making librarians report on books borrowed, and bankers inform on unusual transactions - both of which are in the USA's "Patriot Act"- will not worry Bin Laden. The threat requires an understanding of terrorism's causes and a readiness to address them. "For reasons of State" is always a dangerous argument. One needs to reflect seriously on the cost to society if the terrorists force still more repression. They will certainly have won.

21 August 2004