Monday 23 May 2011

The changing landscape of Privacy

Cassius lunched yesterday with an eminent Lawyer, a man with a lifetime’s experience of picking up the pieces left by public figures who ought to have known better. Conversation turned to the CTB affair – what had gone wrong? What was the legal industry going to do about it? What about the media? Above all, can we blame the French?

Until now, the media Lawyer has lived off the newspaper editor in the same way that the gamekeeper lives off the local poacher – apparent enemies; they make their living from the same trespass. And the lawyers have a problem. The poachers are no longer a few well-worn local faces, but the massed ranks of Twitter and other social networks. Even valid injunctions are of limited use. Serve every individual? - notifying tens of thousands of Twitter users would be self-defeating. Seek to control Twitter, and other services? – Better ask Colonel Gadaffi

If the problem of privacy is to be solved, it will not be by lawyers. Try as they might, they are unlikely to turn this into the the goldmine they seek.

For traditional Media the outlook is equally grim. Deprived of a monopoly as the guardians of gossip, they can’t choose the stories the public are to read, and they can no longer profit from them either. In their stead, a new generation of bloggers has grown up. The best of them (GuidoFawkes and the up-and-coming FleetStreetFox spring to mind) combine the tenacity of the tabloid reporter with what amounts to a real time instinct for public decency

As curators, these newcomers are at least part of the solution. Contrary to what Lord Neuberger seems to believe, they are anything but out of control - because they can’t afford to be. Creatures of the Internet, every one of their posts and tweets is subject to democratic comment and - as Schillings have discovered to their cost - Twitter in full cry is as formidable as any libel suit or gagging order.

For Guido and his like, one inaccurate story or a tweet in bad taste would spell ruin.

So what is the poor celebrity to do? If the masses have become the new Media, then celebrities themselves are its publishers. They are certainly profiting from fame – we would be less bothered by the minutiae of these peoples lives if we didn’t have to watch a stream of freshly shaven footballing couples posing for cash in tasteless Cheshire mansions.

And what is the European experience? We lunched in an Alpine village where every other family is an international household name, and which – whilst there is juicy scandal daily - remains largely untroubled by reporters. Why is this? Is it because they have bigger gaols?

It seems not. It doesn’t happen here because celebrities behave as human beings, and are treated accordingly. When they have affairs, or snort cocaine off hookers, they do so amongst friends and if they are caught they are fairly matter of fact about it. Above all, they avoid hypocrisy.

The public, in Europe as in Britain, are less salacious than either tabloids or Judges might think, and as CTB is now finding out, it is easier to ask them to forgive than to force them to forget.