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
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'.
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.
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