We've already let the media-vampires in

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 11 April 2011 in Diary
Is snapping the Camerons on holiday citizen journalism, or is it an indicator of the dark media culture we now live in, where someone is always watching? asks Sadie Smith

The picture of the Camerons sat glumly in a Stansted departure lounge spoke volumes to the experiences we’ve all had at airports: waiting for ages for the flight to be announced, the inevitability of copping the seat next to some Damian-esque demon child, whose glazed look of mild belligerence will ultimately give way to protracted wailing that will last the full course of the journey. Yep, we’ve all been there.

Except, and this is the crucial difference, we’ve not been there like the Camerons, the Milibands, and before them the Browns and Blairs. Whilst my holidays have been unblighted by images of me kicking the vending machine in Terminal 5 subsequently appearing in the Daily Mail, the Gord had to suffer the indignity of being forced into a casual walk (In a blazer. On the hottest day of the year) with his missus to demonstrate his “real person” credentials whilst surrounded by the lenses of the assembled paps. It must have been excruciating. The Camerons frolicking on the beach in 2009 trod the fine line between “staged” and “genuine” slightly more effectively, but it still felt slightly unedifying to witness.

As public figures and those who have enjoyed the benefits that such publicity can bring, they are in no position to complain if they begin to find the media interest in them oppressive. Well, that’s the argument. In essence, the media are saying that they are like vampires; invite them over the threshold once, and they’ll remain in your private sphere forever, sucking you dry, until your limp and bloodless body is completely drained and you’re only good for articles that begin, “Whatever happened to ...?” and quiz shows hosted by Amanda Holden. But the media isn’t responsible for it. You’re responsible for it. You let them in.

I’ve written in the past, no doubt dully and always at length, about how the concerns with modern liberty have been expressed almost exclusively with respect to what goes on in the public sphere. But in all the sound and fury of Jeremy Clarkson railing against the state stopping him driving at 90mph in a residential zone with a couple of lollipop ladies wrapped around his front bumper, have we been ignoring the erosion of liberty in the private sphere?

During the General Election last year, a would-be MP called Stuart MacLennan was dropped by the Labour Party after he made some deeply unlovely comments on Twitter. Around the same time, a Liberal Democrat bag-carrier was relieved of his position after an ill-advised “outburst” on Facebook. In the past, you used to have to be elected as a Member of Parliament or become a “celebrity”, although granted that the application process for that position remains murky, before you were treated to that sort of media interest.

Today, we’re all at it: snapping pictures on mobile phones of Cam ‘n’ Sam looking gloomy in Stansted, scouring the Twitter feeds of political rivals for opinions that can be used to force their resignation or cause embarrassment to their parties. We’re blogging about them and tweeting about them, and occasionally they are picked up on by the broadcast media – desperate to fill a slot between the story about Kate’s latest hat and what Kay Burley “reckons”.

Is it citizen journalism or Foucault’s nightmare, where none of us are really free because we’re watching each other and behaving like we’re being watched all the time? Either way, I hope none of us become famous because, as far as I can see, we’ve already let them in.

Tags: David Cameron, Holiday, Liberty, Privacy, Samantha Cameron, Stansted, Stuart MacLennan

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