The press, regulation, and personal privacy

Submitted by Matthew on 20 April, 2016 - 12:19 Author: Matt Cooper

Workers’ Liberty draws on and stands in a long tradition of the left standing up for the freedom of the press and free speech.

We believe the attacks the Guardian and its journalists faced over the publication of Edward Snowden’s revelations showed the unequal battle the press often faces when pitted against state power. Much of the privately-owned media has abandoned serious reporting and analysis of the news.

At the same time, there is increasing pressure from within civil society, including from sections of the left, to censor anything that might give offence. We have opposed that political drift. However this article will address an issue about the limits of media power over the individual. What should socialists say about personal privacy from media intrusion?

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press is sometimes presented as an absolute right, but, like all rights in human society, these rights should exist only in relationship to other rights. All rights should, inevitably be limited. In my view, there is no automatic reason why freedom of the press should trump the right to privacy.

There are many on the left who take a libertarian position. In this view, accepting that the state should have any power over the press would open up the press to censorship. Given the interests the state represents that would empower the rich. It would work against the ability of labour and socialist movements to organise.

The state is a capitalist state for sure, but legal rights and the rule of law are not entirely sham things. Legal rights can often be substantive and real, worth defending and extending. Logically legal limitations on press freedom, in the interest of promoting another kind of legal rights, cannot be ruled out on principle. Two recent issues have brought the focus of personal privacy to the fore: the publication of stories about the personal life of the Conservative Minister for Culture, John Whittingdale; and the Sun on Sunday’s attempts to quash a court injunction stopping it publishing details of the extra-marital sex life of a well-known entertainer. Although both these cases involve powerful and rich people, the issue of privacy does not only affect such people. Media intrusion into lawful private activities affects ordinary people too. One example is the way Stuart Jeffries’ private life was scrutinised in 2011 when he was briefly a suspect in the Joanna Yeats murder case.

The Whittingdale case is a complex business. When the pro-regulation pressure group Hacked Off and the BBC’s Newsnight released the story they claimed their interest in doing so was not about John Whittingdale’s private life, but about why the four newspaper groups which had the story chose not to publish it. The suggestion is that these newspapers were holding the story as a threat over Whittingdale (who was the chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, which scrutinises press regulation). Or that those newspapers did not wish to antagonise someone in a powerful position. Hacked Off has suggest that Whittingdale has been effectively blackmailed by the press into not implementing the press regulation proposed by the Leveson Inquiry.

This is not credible. Whittingdale has long been in favour of light press regulation, and the decision to not implement the full Leveson proposals appears to have come from the government. The only justification for Hacked Off and the BBC releasing the story is to expose the hypocrisy of the press. But surely there is little public interest justification for the publication of a story about a single man’s relationship (and even if he were married, so what?)

The mystery celebrity of the Sun’s story is also entitled to privacy. Their married relationship has been described as “open”, and that’s the news. News? Really? Even if they were “cheating”, what right does anyone else have to know? It matters little that the courts have blocked publication of the story, as anyone with ingenuity, a computer and a search engine find out the identity of the celebrity. This story has been created by the press; the question is, should they ever have started looking? Should personal privacy be merely necessary collateral damage in tussles over the regulation of the press and Leveson? Perhaps. But the mystery celebrity story, where there is clearly no “public interest”, shows that the mainstream big business press have no respect whatsoever for personal privacy. Curiosity about the lives of others is one thing, but prurient prying into the sexual activities of others should not be public, with information spread to mass audiences or readerships. Isn’t it time society took a collective decision to abandon this kind of behaviour?

Should the left respond to unjustified intrusions into personal privacy by supporting tighter legal regulation of the press to protect individual privacy as Leveson suggested? (There is much else in Leveson’s proposals, some of it terrible, but that is not the issue here). There are a number of reasons why this is not the path to go down. One reason is that, as with many rights, it is those who can hire lawyers (and can afford the cost of losing in court) who will take best advantage of privacy rights. Libel laws are meant to protect against unsubstantiated allegations, laws can be used to block the publication of the truth. Famously, MacDonalds used the courts to attempt to silence their critics (the McLibel case).

Secondly, there is much “private” and legal activity that the left would want to be known publicly. Much of the material in the Mossack Fonseca “Panama Papers” relates to legal, private financial dealings. Reporting on people’s private lives extends beyond a prurient interest in sex. Important questions of wealth and economic power are involved here. Corporations have also been known to assert their right to privacy. It is a central ideology of capitalism that economic power is a private matter, which can evade state or democratic control or even scrutiny.

The defence for publishing people’s private financial relationships — that there is a “public interest” in so doing — is not a fixed definition. Its current definition reflects a long struggle (not just by the left, but by liberal sections of the media) to hold economic power to account. This limited accountability of economic power should be defended and extended. It would be easy for economic power to roll back accountability under the guise of protecting privacy. Sometimes even sensationalist revelations have their place. There was a time when the rich and the powerful lived alongside a press that was deferential to their position and did nothing to reveal the “real” people. This was breached in 1963, not by the mainstream press, but by a new publication, Private Eye, which broke the story of the Profumo scandal and exposed the sexual mores of a section of the British ruling class. This not only showed the hypocrisy of the ruling elite, but helped to liberalise attitudes to sex. Many think that decades of libel actions have made Private Eye less willing to take political risks, and that privacy laws would only worsen the rot.

Finally the talk about controlling information has to consider the role of the internet and the control of internet communications.

The injunction against the publication of information on the mystery celebrity applies only to England and Wales, but some internet portals and search engines have agreed to impede access to this information from within the UK. Google already restricts access to information in the public realm in the name of personal privacy because of EU regulation. Further moves to shore up personal privacy will cause big business internet providers, as well as state agencies, further powers to police flows of information. So what is the answer?

Parts of the media have never been interested in news, but celebrity-defined media has grown. It is difficult to see how the bars of coverage this not-so-gilded cage might be broken. There is no immediate answer. In the longer term, building the strength of unions and fighting to embolden political life in both the old and new media is one way to address this.

In 1984, print workers at the Sun refused to produce a front page comparing the striking miners’ leader Arthur Scargill to Hitler. The vast majority of journalists want to write accurate news about important issues, not Z-list celebrity tittle-tattle; those journalists should organise. Beyond that we need a media that is under social, not private or state control. As much as issues of private privacy are important, it is unlikely that short-term palliatives to protect rights to privacy will move us closer to that goal.

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