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Their right to invade our privacy

Government proposals for a legal right to privacy can only legitimise the authorities' control over our affairs, says Tessa Mayes

From Fergie's topless, toe-sucking photos to reports of John Major's off-camera attack on Tory 'bastards'; from 'Squidgygate' to the trial-by-newspaper of the Taylor sisters; for months, intrusive reporting by the media has been a big public issue. Now the government has come up with a proposal to enshrine the right to privacy in law, published in the Lord Chancellor's new consultation paper, 'Infringement of Privacy'.

'A person who is harassed by his neighbour, an actress, pop star or sportswoman who is harassed by an obsessive fan, as well as people harassed by the press, should all be able to invoke the protection of the law.' ('Infringement of Privacy', July 1993)

Invading somebody's privacy would be a civil offence, and the law would give the ordinary citizen a means of preventing or of obtaining redress for unwarranted intrusions into his or her private life. The courts would have powers to award up to £10 000 damages, enforce injunctions, prevent intrusions and demand the return of information.

The consultation paper stipulates a broad, flexible arena as 'private': a person's health, personal communications, family and personal relationships.

Many people who have had enough of the low-life tactics of the tabloid press might think that a privacy law sounds like a good idea. But it is not. Although the new proposals are presented as the granting of a right to privacy, in practice they would represent another increase in the power of the authorities to control public debate and to interfere in people's private lives.

Who is to decide what constitutes privacy? And who is to be allowed to intrude upon it?

The 'Infringement of Privacy' paper proposes that 'ordinary citizens' should be protected from intrusions into their private life. In the words of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, 'the time has come to ensure the law protects the privacy of everyone'.

Whose privacy?

Yet the law already offers a particular definition of whose privacy can or cannot be invaded. While the security services can eavesdrop on our private telephone conversations, and the police or our employers now have access to video camera footage of just about our every movement, there are laws and regulations to ensure that we cannot pry into their affairs.

A few days before the 'Infringement of Privacy' paper was published, the government updated the D-Notice system - an agreement under which the media voluntarily limits the reporting of military and intelligence matters. Now, under its privacy proposals, the government is considering banning anybody else from using long-range photographic lenses and bugging equipment.

At present, self-appointed committees of MPs, civil servants, policemen, judges and officers from the security services and armed forces all have full access to 'sensitive' material. They can pore over it at their leisure, in private rooms - and then decide whether the rest of us are allowed to see it or not.
Under the proposals in the 'Infringement of Privacy' paper, the state would retain the ultimate say over what can and cannot be made public. Indeed its authority in this area would be considerably strengthened. Lord Mackay's paper questions 'whether juries are able to handle trials involving difficult issues', and advises that privacy actions should be heard by judges without the hindrance of ordinary people on a jury. So the 'ordinary citizens' who are supposed to be given a right to privacy are in fact to be denied the right to a say on such matters.

The consultation paper insists that certain people - specified by the authorities, of course - should have the right to invade the privacy of others, in the cause of 'necessary protection'. Lord Mackay's examples include an employer who wants personal information about a job applicant. He also argues that 'a person of ordinary sensibilities, for example, would not object to closed-circuit television in department stores', and cites the Justice report on 'Privacy and the Law' (1970) which says invading privacy is necessary for 'the protection of one's person, one's property or one's legitimate business or other interests'.

Today video cameras are going up everywhere from city centre pubs to workplace toilets, and state agencies from social workers to the police are taking a closer and closer interest in how we conduct our private lives. The idea that the authorities can invade our privacy in order to give us 'necessary protection' can only lend legitimacy to a further increase in state monitoring of our affairs - while denying us any control over their activities.

1984 in 1993

We are told we need protection, but from whom?

Lord Mackay's paper mentions in passing that the protection of our privacy must mean 'not only seclusion from neighbours or the avoidance of publicity, but freedom from unwarranted interference by the state'. We are warned that 'privacy is one of the first victims of the totalitarian state', and the paper points to Eastern Europe and 1984.

But what of the increasing scope for state agencies to interfere in our lives in Britain in 1993? On this the report has nothing to say. Instead, we are asked to accept the idea that the state will play the role of protecting us from each other.

Lord Mackay's report suggests that privacy can be infringed if it is in the 'public interest'. This would include matters relating to 'crime or seriously anti-social conduct, public health or safety, the discharge of a public function and the correction of a misleading statement'.

And who is to define the meaning of 'the public interest' or 'anti-social conduct'? The politicians and the judiciary, of course. The same people who conduct campaigns against 'anti-social' groups in society like single mothers, and who want to ban the public from enjoying themselves at festivals and raves 'in the public interest'.

While we are told in the consultation paper that 'spying, prying, watching and besetting' by the press should be considered an infringement of privacy, we are supposed to concede the state's right to spy, pry, watch and beset those whom the authorities decide are guilty of 'anti-social conduct'. Indeed we are now encouraged to spy and pry on these people ourselves, whether as journalists with the 'public interest' at heart or as ordinary citizens ringing up the new MI5 public hotline to report our suspicions about 'subversive' neighbours. In the hands of those who make and execute the law, the 'public interest' always means the state's interest.

All citizens now

The discussion about privacy is typical of many political debates today. We are told that we are to be given new rights, usually enshrined in a charter. Yet these rights are always to be exercised by the state, via the courts, an ombudsman or some other official body. In practice it means the granting of more powers to state agencies to regulate our lives.

Using the language of human rights and citizenship to justify more state interference is a useful way of presenting an exercise in control as something we should all support. If we are all citizens now, then we all have the same interests to protect. John Major is as ordinary as you or I because we all have at least one thing in common: our need for privacy.

The debate about protecting our privacy does not involve any public discussion about the increase of state interference in our affairs today. Indeed the proposals can only reinforce a climate in which society is becoming less open and more secretive, less public and more private, and where any critical questioning of capitalist values is frowned upon.

Crimewatch culture

The government's proposals define privacy as a combination of 'secrecy, anonymity and solitude'. They seek to involve us all in an emerging Crimewatch culture, where it is acceptable to be nosey so long as it means prying into the private affairs of others in order to help the authorities clamp down on their idea of 'anti-social behaviour'.

If we accept that the state has the right to decide what is discussed publicly, who can use video cameras, what is done privately, and who can use bugging devices - what next? Thought Police?
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993

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