From domestics to banter: is anything private anymore?

Saturday 2 November, 10:0011:30, Garden RoomContemporary Controversies

In June, a shouting match between Boris Johnson and his girlfriend made headline news after their neighbours called the police and recorded the argument, before sharing the recording with the media. The incident provoked debate about where we should draw the line when it comes to privacy. For some commentators, Johnson’s domestic troubles were fair game for public discussion, given that he was about to become prime minister. The public, it was argued, had to a right to know about anything that might make Johnson unfit for public office.

But it’s not just the great and good who have had their privacy undermined recently. In 2018, The Tab, a student newspaper, revealed that a group of male students at Warwick University had made jokes and comments about rape and sexual assault in an online group chat. As a result, 11 students were suspended by the university. This breach of privacy was justified by some as a means of protecting potential victims.

The idea that ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ neatly sums up many people’s attitude to privacy today. Those who resist outside intervention into their private lives are regarded with suspicion. As the former News of the World reporter Paul McMullan said in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in 2011: ‘Privacy is for paedos: fundamentally, nobody else needs it.’ Only those with something to hide would resist intrusion, or so the logic goes.

This seems to suggest a sea change in attitudes to privacy. The private individual was once seen as having a wall around him. The private domain of the home was the site of intimacy and genuine relationships. What went on behind closed doors was nobody else’s business. The existence of a secure private realm was seen as crucial for individuals to emerge as unique persons, free from the conformist expectations and the pressures of the social world. As the German philosopher Hannah Arendt said: ‘A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes … shallow.’ Today, when the lines between public and private are increasingly blurred, few people seem willing to make a robust defence of privacy.

If anything, there has been a trend towards revelation rather than privacy. In February this year, the actor Liam Neeson revealed to audiences of Good Morning America that he had once wanted to kill a black man. Similarly, in June, the former environment secretary Michael Gove admitted that he had taken cocaine. The rise of reality TV programmes such as Love Island, Embarrassing Bodies, Sex Box and Naked Attraction suggest that there is a desire to share the most intimate and personal parts of ourselves.

What right, if any, do those in positions of power have to privacy? Do insights into people’s private lives help us to judge their character? Can intrusions into people’s privacy be justified in the name of the ‘public good’? Do threats to privacy increase the likelihood of people self-censoring? When social media and reality TV constantly encourage us to share our most intimate experiences and thoughts, have we forgotten what it means to be private?