Nearly a hundred recommendations have been made by Lord Leveson to put some ethical backbone in Britain’s brash, sometimes corrupt and often sleazy press. The 1,800 page report is an encyclopaedia of the dark arts of yellow journalism: phone hacking, lurid sensationalism, covert surveillance, blagging, door-stepping, harassment, a reckless disregard for accuracy…
But the core of his concerns is privacy. The News of the World, the tabloid which Rupert Murdoch closed down as a response to public outrage over revelations that some of its journalists hacked into the phone of the murdered Millie Dowling, was stupendously, incredibly, horrendously expert at invading the privacy of celebrities.
Exhibit A in these abuses was veteran tabloid journalist Paul McMullan (see video above). He was so proud of his craft and so eager to display it to the Inquiry that he was requested to curb his torrent of stories and pictures. Mr McMullen is an extraordinary raconteur, a rogue so colourful that his testimony cries out to heaven for a film to bring him to the picture theatres. (Hugh Grant looks a bit like him and would do an excellent job.)
Lord Leveson quoted McMullan’s musings on privacy as if, at the one and the same time, he had eaten a particularly bad oyster and trodden in something squishy and unmentionable: “privacy is for paedos… privacy is evil”.
Yet, Mr McMullan’s views deserve a closer examination because they reveal a contradiction at the heart of Britain’s panicky debate about privacy (transcript, November 29, 2011, page 91).
“In 21 years of invading people’s privacy I’ve never actually come across anyone who’s been doing any good. The only people I think need privacy are people who do bad things. Privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things in.
“Privacy is particularly good for paedophiles, and if you keep that in mind, privacy is for paedos, fundamental, no one else needs it, privacy is evil. It brings out the worst qualities in people. It brings out hypocrisy. It allows them to do bad things.
“And no, once the British public wise up to the true perils of privacy, which, you know, one spin-off — for example, if there is a privacy law, your secrets are going to be much more valuable than they were before.”
Unsurprisingly, Lord Leveson holds a more elevated view of privacy based on respect for autonomy. “The existence of a private sphere is vital for human development,” he writes. “It is the space in which individuals are able to experiment with preferences and build personal relationships beyond public scrutiny and judgment.”
Privacy, in other words, is all about the ability to make a choice about how much information we wish to divulge about ourselves. “Personal autonomy and human dignity require that individuals enjoy a protected personal sphere over which they exercise a measure of autonomous control.”
But there is a problem here. If privacy is just about choices, one can give it away. And in fact, this is exactly what is happening in the world of Oprah and Dr Phil. And most of us don’t give a damn.
Everyone has a Facebook page. Yet it is the graveyard of privacy; you confide your secrets to a billion people and allow sticky corporate fingers to paw through your private life so that advertisers can sell you T-shirts, computer games and holidays.
Who could do without Google? Yet its justifications for trawling through your private date have an eerie resemblance to McMullen’s. In 2009, its CEO Eric Schmidt told the CNBC documentary “Inside the Mind of Google”, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”.
And like McMullen the Google chief thinks that privacy is evil. In a complex world, he said in 2010, what we need is “much greater transparency and no anonymity” — “true anonymity is too dangerous”.
And how about hacktivist extraordinaire Julian Assange? Instead of hacking phones, he has been lionised for hacking databases. Amnesty International has given him an award for services to the media, Time magazine readers named him Person of the Year, and in 2011 he won the same award for investigative reporting that Nick Davies, the journalist at the Guardian whose exclusives sank NOWT.
Assange is a hero (for many people); McMullan is viewed as a contemptible sleazebag. Yet they sing from the same hymn book. For Assange, too, privacy is for paedos. Here are some of his musings on secrecy:
“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie… mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”
In the light of these influential views, Lord Leveson’s esteem for privacy looks distinctly old-fashioned. Even Paul McMullan, who, despite his clownish testimony, is no mug, observed, “you don’t need to clamp down on press freedom because the press is failing without any restriction. So it’s a changing industry and I think in ten years’ time, newspapers will be very different.”
As readers move away from newsprint onto the internet where they give their privacy away for nothing, does this mean that privacy has lost its meaning?
No, but we do need to move away from a conception of privacy based on autonomy to one based on human dignity. This is far from theoretical. In a world based only on autonomy, you can give all of your privacy away if you want to. Since we are deemed to have constructed our own lives and identities, nothing personal is absolutely sacred, nothing personal is absolutely indestructible, nothing personal is inalienable. It’s OK to bare your nakedness to the paparazzi.
A sense of privacy based on human dignity assumes that each person is “sacred”. His or her uniqueness creates a core of feeling and experience that should not be revealed or shared with the world. Once upon a time this forgotten virtue was called modesty.
Despite public indignation over the outrageous abuses of yellow journalists like Paul McMullan, he could eventually become the patron saint of a new era of privacy, where nothing about the citizens of a wired world is sacred. To avoid this, we need to rediscover what it means to be a human being.
That’s ultimately why Lord Leveson’s analysis fails, notwithstanding his sound observations about the failings of the media. What we need to stop the obscenities of tabloid journalism is a change of culture, not just a revision of regulations.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.