Privacy, Print, and Politics

It is a fruitful time to be studying the intellectual history of privacy. Privacy has been connected with print and politics since the seventeenth century, and has become a permanent fixture in current news.

The scandal over MPs’ expenses, which has dominated headlines over a good number of weeks, has posed many moral questions about the jurisdiction of public and private information. Even without the revelation of expenses claims, the attempts to hinder the release of members’ claims, and the vilification of those who supported the suppression, (actions which proved the downfall of speaker Michael Martin), may have been evidence enough that there was something rather dreadful to hide.

Conservative MP Sir Patrick Cormack, approaching 40 years of service, remarked that “The times that we are living in are unprecedented as far as Parliament is concerned. What is at stake is the institution of Parliament and its integrity”. We witness a brand of secrecy so corrupt that the only way of maintaining any faith in parliament as a ruling body is to preserve that which is already unknown to the public.

In Word and Deed

The popular turn to history has centred right upon Oliver Cromwell (Conservative; Telegraph). However, in terms of the public and private nature of these practices, it is important to expand the context right to the beginning of the seventeenth century.

The early Stuart kings had forged an impression of public transparency. At the turn of the century, James I’s model of kingship, the Basilikon Doron, declared that anything spoken ‘in darknesse, should be heard in the light’, that whatever ‘spoken in the ear in secret place, should be publicklie preached on the tops of the houses’, and that kings, ‘being publike persons, by reason of their office and authority are… upon a public, in the sight of all the people’ must be ‘the more careful, not to harbour the secretest thought in their mind’.

Intended as a private text, a leak led to hack publication of the Basilikon Doron, which prompted a legitimate published version in 1603. Certainly, the divulgence of the king’s intentions for public affront and transparency offered little to be afraid of, but an ‘authorised’ version may have been sharp to remove advice that it was sometimes necessary to deceive the people you serve.

What emerged was the familiar discrepancy between words and practice. James’ distaste for publicity was made abundantly clear in the first instance during the coronation ceremonies. Upon a courtier reporting that a large crowd surrounding his carriage wished to see his Majesty’s face, the king’s retort was clear:

‘God’s wounds: I will pull down my breeches and show them my arse!’

James displayed tight, private control over foreign and military policy, which came under the realm of state secrets, the arcana imperii, and he desired complete discretion over decision making, achievable through divine right. His son and successor, Charles I, privately vowed not to follow hypocritical elements of his father’s behaviour, but his disposition showed even greater obsession towards personal privacy. The capture of Charles’ private letters at Naseby in 1645, published triumphantly by parliament as a sign of victory and conclusive evidence in their efforts to discredit the king, demonstrated the ability of the public sphere, once it is able to penetrate, to blast apart the private.

Reactions in Context

As we appreciate that constitutional power has all but transferred from the crown to parliament, the public outcry at the revelations was completely justified. It has, however, been manipulated to an extent. This is not to excuse the actions of bankers nor members, but more to contextualise the reaction.

Vast banking incentives, vast pensions, and glorious expenditure would not make such grandiloquent headlines in a period of strong economic growth. In the midst of recession, however, close investigations of such sums have not only covered recent ground, but largely the past 5 years. Interrogation in 2009 of sums from 2004-2007 are difficult to ignore, but there is a grain of hypocrisy in criticising now, with mass public attention, that which was branded less significant and yielded less public reaction then.

Ways, means and ideas make up traditions. So much depends on what is inherited. Comment and reaction has rekindled Oliver Cromwell’s speech in April 1653 to the Rump Parliament. This parliament was succeeded by what contemporaries labelled the Barebones Parliament, a failed experiment, which, in essence, served to prove that no man was necessarily exempt from the power, wealth, and corruption that could be accrued at Westminster, nor the tendency for damaging confrontation.

If English history has shown that Westminster promotes itself as a lucrative haven or the place where good men are turned, it has also shown, arcana imperii through caveat emptor, that secrecy governs advantage. There are fundamental flaws in a system with tempting allowances so great that it actively encourages opportunistic and entrepreneurial behaviours.

What is almost as equally lamentable about the situation is the moral rectitude that comes forth, because I struggle to believe that the vast majority wouldn’t try it on in much the same way. A test of public spiritedness is one thing; a test for public profligacy is another. So, how would the average person fare with the allowance system available to MPs? How well would they resist the temptation that comes, with the only requirement being – pre June 2009 – the prerogative to claim privately?

Is there any way in which the television licence fee could be branded public money? Some of the salaries of TV celebrities are extortionate. While it is lamentable that Lord Foulkes believes that democracy can seriously be undermined in a country led by an unelected prime minister avoiding an election, are not MPs salaries taken out of context when we consider that newsreading brings in £92,000?


The Power of the Public

However, even if we take into account press manipulation, and a certain degree of displaced overreaction, what is particularly hard to understand is the PM’s tight defences in trying to maintain that which is not only lost, but which damages in all flailing attempts to retain it.

The mid-seventeenth century through 2009 has shown that privacy is the barricade or dam to a public torrent. Once there is a breach, or, more potently, a collapse, there is a certain folly in trying to patch this up.

The first move was the attempt to recalibrate the expenses system to resemble that used in Brussels, which proves even less restrictive than the vilified existing system.

The second, given the almost inevitable need to release the details of expenses, was to restrict the flow of sensitive information from the published expenses claims by blacking it out. The obvious flaw with this evasion, which eludes to earlier shades of government censorship that Milton respectfully began the campaign against in 1644, is that sensitive information, including addresses, could protect members against the most lucrative claims for the ‘flipping’ of second homes.

From an EU summit in Brussels, the Prime Minister has stated that he is committed to “maximum exposure”, and that “while ensuring that security issues are addressed, as they have to be, our first principle must be maximum transparency”. David Cameron, on the other hand, believes that much more could be revealed without compromising “legitimate security concerns” (BBC).

The third move, revealed this week, a ‘private’ inquiry into the Iraq war, shows how clearly the higher echelons have failed to understand how public and private domains operate in the relationship between leaders and their people.

MP Expense Blackout

MPs Expenses Blackout: ‘Maximum transparency’?


So, politics and print (or the press) would contend that it was in the public interest to avoid privacy and secrecy in all matters of public life, and even to some degree the private lives of its servants. But the ethics surrounding privacy are particularly uncomfortable. Where do we draw anonymity into this?

The anonymous author of the now defunct blog NightJack, which provided insight into the inner workings and bureaucracy of the constabulary, was revealed this week. Inquisitive journalism procured the details and a judge rejected the author’s appeal against their release, ruling effectively that writers publishing material on the internet forfeited their right to withhold names and identities should they be in any way detectable.

Samples of NightJack available here.

The author’s response to the release here.

A legal view here.

Anonymity provides a thin veil between publicity and privacy. Controversial speech acts these may be, but what anonymity can do is encourage the spread of information that would otherwise never be shared. This specific case revolves around ‘public interest’, so the journalist justified himself. When we draw politics and print into the diagnostics of privacy, where do we draw the line at what constitutes public interest?

There are certain limits I think we are all prepared to adhere to with regards to freedom to speech. Those who publish in any sphere have their responsibilities. Yet, in keeping to the law, there is a degree of public interest represented in exposure. Insightful perspective into the inefficiencies of our services could instigate change in the way that only public exposure can. Whenever Pandora’s Box remains closed, there is often so little incentive for development and improvement in what is occasionally shoddy practice. If executives on large salaries are allowed to use protective boundaries of their institutions and repressive law to build barriers, we might expect less honesty, transparency and efficiency in overall management, and greater tightening around secret practices.

The public tends to support the efforts of ‘whistle-blowers’ but such actions come, more often than not, with self-sacrifice. One high profile example is UKIP’s Marta Andreasen, who was notably ousted from her position as Chief Accountant for the European Commission for persistent reporting of serious laxity in systems of accounting and expense. Inevitably, the author of NightJack has already been disciplined. It is worth noting that the blog did not receive mass interest until it was inadvertently recommended for, and won, the Orwell prize, which came after the blog had ended. Nor was the award collected by the author.

Privacy has a complex relationship with the concept of authorship, and it continues to evolve in this day and age. Times Columnist Daniel Finkelstein has led the argument in favour of releasing the Nightjack author’s identity. It remains difficult to believe, though, that The Times’ priorities were in any way as a moral crusade in the public interest. Journalistic interests have come first; however assuredly, justification has been concocted afterwards [Note the difference in sympathies from June 17th to June 19th]. Having looked back to Jacobean England, Guido Fawkes’ hugely popular blog, another victim of identity disclosure, argues that the press need to be equally transparent in their more subtle moves of anonymity [before, and after, response].

The Cabinet Opened

Publicity and transparency are the new popular political weapons, and privacy threatens to be transformed into a new brand of human selfishness. The calls for Cromwell to reform Parliament have, so far, missed the wider and more potent allusion.

The PM seems to resemble Charles I in several ways: lacking charisma and interpersonal skills, an inclination towards Personal Rule, a lack of awareness of the public and private domains, and a damaging disposition towards secrecy.

If The Kings Cabinet Opened , the publication of incriminating private letters in 1645, was the move that brought Charles to execution, the parliamentary revolution that threatens once again from the private affairs of expenditure made public may leave the prime minister thankful for enlightened times.

The bleeding head held aloft in January 1649, reminding Marvell of that found on the Capitol Hill, ‘which caused the architects to run’, might remind the PM of his one resemblance of Cromwell. Did he, in fact, ‘by industrious valor climb / To ruin the great work of Time’? Milton’s 1648 sonnet to the leader of the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, urging him to finish the job, contains a chilling omen.

a Nobler task awaits thy Hand,
For what can War, but Acts of War still breed
Till injur’d Truth from Violence be freed;
And publick Faith be rescu’d from the Brand
Of publick Fraud; in vain doth Valour bleed,
While Avarice and Rapine shares the Land.

Perhaps, then, it’s hurredly back to the private gardens and bergamots.

4 thoughts on “Privacy, Print, and Politics

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