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 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 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”. Evidentally, the the only way of upholding public faith in Parliament is by preserving its secrecy.

In Word and Deed

While the oft-mentioned figure in the media this week has been Oliver Cromwell (Conservative; Telegraph), it’s the half-century prior to his rise to prominence that provides the richer 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.

It’s ways, means and ideas that make up traditions. Comment and reaction has rekindled Oliver Cromwell’s speech in April 1653 to the Rump Parliament. We may recall that 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, arcana imperii, 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. A test of public spiritedness is one thing; a test for public profligacy is another. How would the average person fare against 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? While it’s clearly foolish of Lord Foulkes to state that it’s a BBC newsreader undermining democracy when we’re a nation led by an unelected prime minister clearly avoiding an election he knows he’s going to lose, he’s right to baulk at newsreading bringing in £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. Privacy is the barricade to a public torrent. Once there is a breach (or collapse), it’s folly to attempt to patch it up.

The first shambles was attempting to implement the expenses system used in Brussels, which is even more corruptable than the incumbent one.

The second was to restrict the information from published expenses claims by blacking it out (below). 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, 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 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.

Investigative journalism procured the details and a judge rejected the author’s appeal against their release, ruling that writers publishing material on the internet forfeited their right to withhold names and 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. 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?

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.

The public tends to support the efforts of ‘whistle-blowers’ but such actions come, more often than not, with self-sacrifice. The author of NightJack has already been disciplined. It is worth noting that the blog did not receive mass interest until it inadvertently won the Orwell prize after it ended – an award which went unclaimed.

Privacy and authorship are an awkward partnership. The Times’ Daniel Finkelstein has led the argument for the unveiling of Nightjack‘s author, but justification for this was only concocted after the fact. Guido Fawkes, another victim of identity disclosure, argues that the press need to be equally transparent in their more subtle moves of anonymity.

The Cabinet Opened

Publicity and transparency are the new popular political weapons. Privacy threatens to return to the suspicious brand of human selfishness it was considered to be prior to 1650.

Moreover, if the publication of The Kings Cabinet Opened in 1645 was the move that brought Charles to execution, the new revolution that threatens, once again from private affairs made public, may leave the Prime Minister thankful for enlightened times.

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 the PM of one terrifying resemblance of Cromwell, who ‘by industrious valor’ climbs / ‘To ruin the great work of Time’

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


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