Free speech vs right to privacy: a conflict of liberties

Is Julian Assange doing anything morally superior to News of the World when they tapped politicians’ phones, or Sky News when they ‘accidentally’ left a microphone on Gordon Brown? Or perhaps they are all defenders of free speech?

World War III hasn’t broken out yet over the leaked cables, thank goodness. It’s a relief, in the scheme of things, to know that Prince Andrew almost being rude to someone wasn’t enough to upset intelligent diplomats who probably understand that people sometimes say things in private that they would be too professional to actually say in public. China being ready to abandon North Korea, on the other hand, is a bit more serious, and it’s pretty obvious why that one is kept quiet. Any fool can see what the possible implications could be of broadcasting such a story. You’d think.

But national security and national embarrassment are not the real story here. This whole debacle is just the latest aspect of a troubling trend we are seeing in the media these days. I’m referring to the ugly notion that ‘the public’ have a right to know everything, about everyone, all the time, be it the unconventional past job of an X-Factor contestant’s grandmother, or the sexual activities of Max Mosley.

When we all found out the extent to which News of the World had been tapping phones, no-one seriously claimed national security could be damaged by overhearing John Prescott or Prince Harry’s private messages (although it’s not unarguable). National security, or even personal embarrassment was never really the point. The issue was the right to privacy. It doesn’t matter, argued the wise critics of NOTW’s phone tapping habits (voices like the Guardian, the Independent, and, in fact, most of the British political left) whether you like the people involved or not, or whether you consider the information disclosed to be important or trivial. The point is, it’s against the law to publish people’s private conversations without consent, especially conversations which you’ve obtained illegally.

And this is not, or should not be, negotiable. It’s a fundamental principle of a free society that people are allowed to say anything, do anything, and believe anything, in private, as long as they don’t break any laws. Where have those principles gone? The left have collective amnesia now that it’s a hero of the left (a self-identified free market capitalist libertarian, ironically, but nonetheless an adopted hero of the left!) publishing information that is supposed to embarrass America – even though it actually doesn’t, surely, in the minds of anyone sensible, since it makes just about every other leader look silly too, mostly consists of tabloid-level gossip, and shows diplomats just doing pretty much what they are paid to do, to say nothing of the fact that – crucially – the leaked cables do not show evidence of law-breaking (with the possible exception of spying on the UN leader, which presumably can be looked into the by courts to see if any international laws have been breached. And that’s something that could surely have been conducted in a more sensible way than over the internet, as indeed all matters of international law would hopefully be).

But it’s not just ‘the left’ who are being a little bit hypocritical over this issue. What about when Sky left a microphone on Gordon Brown and broadcast his privately expressed comments about Gillian Duffy? Where was the outrage from the Conservative press then about this invasion of the British Prime Minister’s privacy?

The truth is, we are all creeping into a frighteningly partial approach to civil liberties, and the tribal, biased response to Wikileaks, News of the World, and ‘Bigotgate’ are symptomatic of an attitude whereby we apply totally different legal and moral standards to our friends – to those we agree with politically – than to everybody else.

But civil liberties don’t work that way; that is the point of them. The only way I can be certain my emails won’t be read, my phone won’t be tapped, my diary won’t be snatched and published (should I ever say anything interesting enough to be published that is, which seems unlikely, although it is not impossible that, say, a loved one who I scribble about in my diary could become a successful politician one day, or something to that effect) is if everyone else’s emails, phones, and diaries are protected too.

If someone has broken the law – as might be the case in the UN spying story – there are legal means of redress. If there aren’t any suitable legal means available (in the case of Wikileaks’ Abu Graib revelations, for example), perhaps there is an argument to be made for public release of information. Significantly, following the Abu Graib leak, no-one wanted to arrest, assassinate or execute (!) Julian Assange. (Not that someone can be tried for treason by a country they’re not a citizen of, or else we could all be tried for treason by North Korea presumably, but the logic failures of daft media commentators is, alas, too expansive a topic to fit in to this particular blog). But if no laws have been broken, people’s right to private conference shouldn’t change depending on whether they work for the government or whether they work in a chip shop. The Guardian didn’t think it should change for John Prescott and Prince Harry, did they? If we want the individuals who run the world to be subject to the same laws as the rest of us, they also need to have the same rights. And that includes the right to privacy.

Yes, Julian Assange should have the right to speak his mind. No-one (or no-one sensible, by which I exclude Glenn Beck) is saying he should be banned from expressing his opinions on any public figures, or interviewing them, or taking them to task if they break the law. But the right to free speech stops when it becomes an illegal invasion of privacy, just like the right to freedom of expression stops at my right to video my neighbour across the street undressing and stick it on the internet.

Just as the government has been in danger of invoking the ‘cry wolf’ legend by claiming everything as a national security threat until we no longer take those words seriously anymore, we, by which I mean the civil liberties-conscious public as well as the media, also need to be responsible about how we use and apply our ‘right to know.’ If we think it’s okay to break the law in order to know what Barack Obama really thinks of Silvio Berlusconi (sentiments we could all have guessed), where does that leave us when Rupert Murdoch wants to know whether Simon Hughes is gay or not? Without a leg to stand on, that’s where.

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7 thoughts on “Free speech vs right to privacy: a conflict of liberties

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  1. Good post but I’m not sure I agree with your point about bigotgate though. If Gordon Brown was daft enough to say those things with a microphone attached that wasn’t put there secretly, then to me that’s not a breach of privacy, that’s just stupidity! 😉

  2. Hi Richard,

    Thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

    It certainly was pretty daft of Gordon Brown to not notice the microphone. But how far do we take this theory? If someone forgets to change their PIN then is it fair game to access the voicemails? (The argument by defenders of the NOTW). It seems to be a slightly slippery slope once we start saying carelessness (or even downright stupidity) is justification for less civil liberties. I mean there must have been some degree of carelessness involved in the leaked cables siituation too…

    An interesting perspective though!

    I hope you come back to Left Eye Right Eye again.

    You can follow @LouMcCudden on Twitter to make sure you don’t miss any posts.

  3. You say, reasonably, that the right to free speech stops when it becomes an illegal inavasion of privacy; so presumably Assange had no right to publish what he did, most of it involving illegality of some sort at some stage of the publication process. But how do things ever change if, at some point someone doesn’t break some law or other ? Viz: the suffragettes ?

  4. Thought-provoking as ever, Ms Mc, but I fear you miss an important distinction which was pertinent in the Mosley case. There is a difference in communications in pursuit of public office and those in a private capacity. Most of the wikileaks stuff (I haven’t read beyond the headlines which seem to state the bleedin’ obvious) appears to be public office holders writing as such. Now not everything so done should be open to public scrutiny – reading this man’s books on The Troubles – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Taylor_(journalist)- makes it plain why some dissembling in public is required to negotiate effectively.

    Having said that, perhaps a presumption in favour of all communications between public office holders and their servants being made public after one year unless covered by limited and judicially defined exceptions would be a better way forward.

    Not that it’ll happen.

  5. So hypothetically – Glenn Beck finds a conversation (illegally) between Obama and Clinton, in which Obama reveals he’s taking medication for depression and this has influenced his healthcare policy. They have a right to publish? Suppose he mentions in an email that he’s had a relationship with a man in the past and this affected his views of gay rights? OK to publish?

    The NOTW phone tapping was mostly public office holders. And a lot of it was relevant to their jobs.

  6. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I’d say the examples you give are not in pursuit of public office – they are private matters that have influenced decision-making in public office.

    Examples that I think should be made public would be a conversation with a drug company about research support that had influenced healthcare provision or with a religious anti-gay lobbying group that influenced policy making.

    The taking of anti-depressants or a gay relationship would have happened whether the subject is in public office or service; the conversations with lobbyists or company directors would not. Hence the presumption in favour of privacy applies in the first instance, but not in the second.

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