Liberty and those who misuse it

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 13 November 2012 in Diary
Why our future Orwellian dystopia will stem more from rabid paparazzi than a surveillance state

Dinner party discussions comparing contemporary Britain to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four have been de rigeur for a couple of years now for two reasons: first, it plays into the arrogance of the V for Vendetta generation who assume that they are so goddamn interesting that the state – naturally! – wants to cop an eyeful. Second, Orwell’s book may well be a classic, but it’s conceptually quite simple and not at all obtuse in style, meaning that even the chumps whose idea of searing economic commentary is tweeting “All taxation is theft, amirite?” stand a decent stab at understanding the main premise.

And, sadly for discussions surrounding contemporary liberty, it’s precisely this type who have monopolised the debate in recent times with the worst offenders being the kohl-eyed darling of the Question Time audience, Shami Chakrabarti, and that tedious old high-Tory-in-disguise, Observer columnist Henry Porter.

Alas, dear reader, there I have neither the word count nor the inclination to go into the shortcomings of these two but anyone who was witness to la Chakrabarti’s performance on Dimbers’ weekly bumble-fest will appreciate why I was roaring at the screen every time she did that wide-eyed bambi thing whilst failing to say anything of either intellectual merit or interest.

Crow-barring in the phrase “ainshunt liberteez” paired with some vaguely ominous muttering how they have been eroded by the last Labour government/current Coalition (delete according to prejudice) is the extent of the debate on liberty. Excellent work, philosophers! Prior to modern times, discussions about liberty, what it was, and who it was for had troubled the finest minds of successive generations.

These days, we get Henry Porter writing about how he refused to eat in a curry house that happened to be within the same postcode as a CCTV camera, and stormed out in high dudgeon, scattering onion bhajis and asking outraged rhetorical questions about whether Magna Carta had died in vain in his wake.

As Frank Cotton in the first Hellraiser memorably said: Jesus wept.

Poor as these discourses are we should be grateful, I suppose, that they are there. But they only cover questions of liberty when in the public sphere. Personally, I am reasonably relaxed about most of the things that get Shami and Porter’s undergarments in a wangle, such as CCTV. In the public space, I can reasonably expect my behaviour to be monitored to a certain extent.

For the public space to be safe for everyone to access and use there has to be a degree of policing. I don’t mean Darth Vader in charge of a couple of hundred clone droids so much as coppers, or restrictions on how fast you can drive your two-tonne missile down streets in densely popular areas. Frankly, if I had my way people would have to take a basic proficiency test before they were allowed to operate a trolley around the Sainsbury’s on Nine Elms lane, but maybe that’s just me. You don’t agree? Bite me, as Voltaire famously nearly said.

Where there is little discussion, and where it does exist it’s poor at best and damaging at worst, is liberty in the private sphere. The Leveson inquiry raised some interesting questions about how an individual’s right to a private life could co-exist with the necessity of the press to hold those in power to account without fear or favour, and to report on the pressing issues of the day without being super-injuncted into silence.

Such a delicate balance would have fascinated J. S. Mill who famously – if problematically – held that what the state didn’t specifically prohibit was allowed in terms of both public and private liberty. Happily for Mr Mill, his period in history didn’t contain the 3am Girls and the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame. Unhappily for us, our period in history does.

We’re all so busy coming up with increasingly inventive ways of how the state might oppress us, we’re missing the fact that we, in collaboration with the media, are oppressing each other’s right to a private life in a manner that was a central tenet of Orwell’s philosophy.

It started with the press hounding of people in public life. ‘Look,’ the argument goes. ‘Sienna Miller’s not been shy about getting her fun-bags out before. Flaunted them, pretty much, the shameless hussy! And now she gets all outraged when we camp outside her house waiting for her to emerge for a pint of milk without makeup so we can flog it to some copy-short hack who will write a story about how she’s either a “fresh faced beauty” or “causing concern with her bedraggled appearance” depending on how he’s feeling.’

An aside: this argument is not far from George Galloway’s contention that not every women needed to be asked before every ‘insertion’. Some of us felt that statement a bit rapey, but that’s not exactly the issue at hand right now.

The problem is – apart from the immediate problem that Ms Miller has, that she can’t so much as assemble the ingredients for a brew without it appearing in the tabs – that you could pretty much make this argument for anyone. Twitter and Facebook are odd lands that breach the divide, which was always a murky divide at best, between the public and private spheres.

The faux outraged mob have forced the resignation of a bag-carrier before now for making crap jokes about Her Maj on the grounds that his position in Parliament made it a scandal, and a couple of political opponents were having a slow afternoon.

Few of us here are household names, even in our own household. However, it will soon be the case that, theoretically at least and like the unfortunate bag-carrier, we will all be deemed to be, like Sienna, ‘asking for it.’

Work in the public sector? I can print something on you because our taxes pay your wages and the public have a right to know. Having an affair? But you previously tweeted a Bill Clinton gag, so it’s my right to expose your hypocrisy.

Soon we’re all going to live our lives in the public sphere because any notion of the private will cease to exist.

I’m going to sound all Henry Porter here, but it’s not going to be long before we’re all of us fair game on the basis that ... well, you can find any excuse really to pry into someone’s life under the arguments of ‘public interest’ or ‘freedom of speech’, and the principle extends further than the lives of celebrities right down to us at the bottom. The groundwork for Foucault’s dystopia, that no one needs to watch us because we behave as if we’re being watched the entire time, is already being laid.

This is not to say, however, that I believe that the press should be gagged or that they should be prevented in revealing genuine scandal and abuse. I just think that using the principles of the First Amendment as a justification for celebrity crotch-shots and claiming that curtailing this activity would lead to a supine media (and anyway, she was asking for it) is a pernicious, dangerous, and disingenuous one.

In short, I guess I am accusing certain elements of the mainstream media of using arguments about press freedom, liberty, and Bernstein and Woodward as an excuse for allowing the bin-rifling condom-sniffers and aggressive paparazzi to continue their trade in order to make a quick buck.

It’s not about freedom, liberty or Bernstein and Woodward. It’s about making money, pure and simple, and the result is that all of our private lives are going to get a lot less private.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; when the Orwellian nightmare finally arrives on these shores it won’t be via CCTV cameras or the database state. Rather it will be next to an up-skirt shot of Prince Harry’s latest victim on the Mail’s Sidebar of Shame, and a horde of paps spitting at their victims, and just behind a sanctimonious, self-serving editorial on the importance of a free press.

Tags: Cctv, Celebrity, Liberty, Orwell, Press freedom, Sadie Smith, Surveillance

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