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 recent scandal over MPs’ expenses 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 to suppress its material may have been evidence enough that there was something terrible 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”.
Evidentally, the the only way of upholding public faith in Parliament was by preserving its secrecy.
In word and deed
While the oft-mentioned figure in the media has been Oliver Cromwell (Conservative; Telegraph), it’s the half-century prior to Cromwell’s rise to prominence that provides the narrative of secrecy and fraud.
The early Stuart kings worked hard to create an impression of public transparency. James I’s Basilikon Doron, apparently intended as a private text, declared that anything spoken ‘in darknesse, should be heard in the light’, and that whatever ‘spoken in the ear in secret place, should be publicklie preached on the tops of the houses’.
It said 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’.
What emerged was the all-too-familiar discrepancy between words and practice. James’s 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!’
He displayed dictatorial 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.
His son and heir, Charles I, privately vowed not to follow the hypocritical elements of his father’s behaviour, but he went on to show an even greater obsession towards personal privacy.
The capture of Charles’s private letters at Naseby in 1645, published triumphantly by Parliament as conclusive evidence in their efforts to discredit the king, demonstrated the ability of the public sphere to blast apart the suspicious private sphere.
Reactions in context
The retrospective interrogation in 2009 of sums from 2004-2007 follows a distinctly uncomfortable new pattern of revaluting what was deemed far less significant prior to the financial crisis.
Comment and reaction has rekindled Oliver Cromwell’s speech in April 1653 to the Rump Parliament. The Rump was succeeded by the Barebones Parliament, a failed experiment which demonstrated that no man was 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 is the place where the corrupt show up or where good men are turned, it has also shown that secrecy governs advantage. There are fundamental flaws in a system that actively encourages opportunistic behaviours.
Despite the public moral rectitude, it’s hard to believe that the vast majority wouldn’t try it on in much the same way. We’ve just failed a test for public honesty. How would the average person resist the temptation of the MPs expenses system as it existed pre-June 2009?
More to the point, perhaps, are MPs salaries understood in relative terms? Lord Foulkes was baffled to discover that a BBC newsreader was earning £92,000.
The power of the public
However, even if we take into account press manipulation and a degree of overreaction, what’s done is done. It’s how we react to put that right.
The first shambles was attempting to implement the expenses system used in Brussels, which appears even more corruptable than the incumbent one.
The second was to restrict the information from published expenses claims by blacking it out. The retraction of addresses protects members against the most lucrative (and corrupt) claims – the ‘flipping’ of second homes.
From an EU summit in Brussels, the Prime Minister stated that he is committed to “maximum exposure” and that “our first principle must be maximum transparency”. There’s no obvious sign of it yet.
The third move, revealed this week, a ‘private’ inquiry into the Iraq war, demonstrates the failure to understand how public and private domains operate in the relationship between leaders and their people.
So, politics and 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 police constabulary, was revealed this week by an investigative journalist. A judge had rejected the author’s appeal against its release, ruling that authors of published material on the internet forfeit their right to withhold identities should they be in any way detectable.
Anonymity provides a thin veil between publicity and privacy. What it can do is encourage the spread of information that would otherwise never be shared. But whistleblowing often involves sacrifice, and the Nightjack author has already been disciplined. The blog only reached the public eye after it ended, winning the Orwell prize, which went unclaimed.
Privacy and authorship are an awkward partnership. The Times’ Daniel Finkelstein defended the unveiling of Nightjack‘s author. Guido Fawkes also believes the press need to be equally transparent in their furtive moves.
The cabinet opened
Publicity and transparency are new popular political weapons. Privacy threatens to return to the suspicious brand of human selfishness it was considered to be prior to 1650.
The bleeding head held aloft in January 1649 reminds Andrew Marvell of that on the Capitol Hill, ‘which caused the architects to run’. It might remind usr of one terrifying resemblance of Cromwell, who ‘by industrious valor’ climbs | To ruin the great work of Time’.
Perhaps, then, it’s hurriedly back to the private gardens and bergamots.