Q&A: Stars exposed as privacy protection fades

Everyone's talking about privacy. It's a human right. But as super-injunctions are made meaningless by Twitter could the protection of privacy be a thing of the past?

Q: Everyone's talking about privacy!

A: True. In the last couple of days, Ryan Giggs and one other footballer have had their injunctions outed on Twitter; Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, has said they'll defy super-injunctions imposed by English courts and allow forbidden material to be made public in Scotland; and there's talk about parliamentary reform of the existing privacy laws. So yes – everyone is talking about privacy.

Q: What exactly is it?

A: People find it hard to define, but one good definition, used by a recent public enquiry, is: 'Privacy is the right of the individual to be protected against intrusion into his personal life or affairs, or those of his family, by direct physical means or by publication of information.'

Q: Is it a new idea?

A: Not at all – it's centuries old. In 1361, for instance, the Justices of the Peace Act in England provided for the arrest of 'peeping toms' and 'eavesdroppers'. Later, the 18th Century parliamentarian William Pitt wrote: 'The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter; the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.'

Q: When did privacy become an international concern?

A: The critical moment was the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 12 states: 'No one should be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks on his honour or reputation.' And then came the Human Rights Act in 1998 confirming this. English lawyers use this law to protect the private lives of the famous.

Q: Is it just a Western thing?

A: Increasingly less so. In 2003 all the leading Asian countries began work on an Asia-Pacific privacy standard. These countries included Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand and the United States. Privacy is a global concern.

Q: If it's so important, why are privacy laws crumbling now?

A: The world has changed. There's the internet, for instance. Twitter releases information worldwide in an instant. And the originator of the story is anonymous, unreachable by any court.

Q: So how can anyone now police a privacy law?

A: This is the issue. It's no use making laws that are impossible to enforce.

Q: And newspapers ride on the back of the internet?

A: Of course. They see a story widely available online and find it absurd that they are still not allowed to print it. So they revolt, like Scotland's Sunday Herald, which last weekend printed on its front page the face of one of the footballers hiding behind a super-injunction.

Q: So the internet has made all the difference?

A: And celebrities. If people live off being in the public eye, when exactly do they become private people? It's a hard one to call, lines are blurred. They make themselves part of our lives and then we want to know everything about them.

Q: Does anyone care about this apart from a few journalists and the celebrities themselves?

A: Well, there was a very strong reaction on Twitter when a law firm tried to gag them with legal threats. One MP described the online public backlash as 'the biggest act of civil disobedience for decades'. Many believe lack of privacy is the 'tax' people pay for being rich and famous.

Q: Would it be good if privacy laws were abolished?

A: Not necessarily. It may excite some to see the law collapse through 'people power', but what follows? Human beings are endlessly curious, and without a law to protect privacy it becomes a very vulnerable concept. What do you then do when someone sticks a camera through your kitchen window?

You Decide

  1. Simon Jenkins, a journalist, says that loss of privacy 'is the tax a free society imposes on celebrity.' Do you think this is fair?
  2. 'The internet could do nothing worse than destroy our right to privacy.' Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Class discussion: When does social networking become an invasion of your privacy?
  2. Recently, the journalist Andrew Marr and the banker Fred Goodwin have used super-injunctions to protect their private lives. On the other hand – actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger and IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn did not have the chance and had their private lives exposed. Write a newspaper article entitled: 'Who on earth has the right to privacy?'

Some People Say...

“We're social animals – there shouldn't be privacy laws.”

What do you think?

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.