After Lord Browne: bring back privacy
In our rush to read all about the former BP head’s private life, we have forgotten the key role privacy plays in forging trust and identity.
Lord Browne wore a deathly smile as he left the BP offices. ‘Are you ashamed of what you’ve done?’ a reporter shouted at his back.
Browne was the chief executive of the oil giant British Petroleum until he was forced to resign this week. His supposed source of shame was that he lied about his relationship with the young Canadian Jeff Chevalier. Browne told a court that they had met jogging in London’s Battersea Park, whereas they actually met through suitedandbooted.com, a gay escort agency. When this came out, Browne resigned. That the chief executive of Britain’s biggest company could be brought down over suitedandbooted.com shows how messed up is our attitude towards privacy today.
Browne was fighting for an injunction to prevent Associated Newspapers from publishing Chevalier’s account of the affair. When the four-year relationship ended in 2006, Chevalier first went off the rails, and then – predictably – he went to the press. Browne claims that he told the court the Battersea Park white lie because of his ‘embarrassment and shock’ about the situation.
Now the UK Mail on Sunday is making grand statements about press freedom and the public interest, railing against ‘the system of secret court hearings which is increasingly being used by the rich and powerful to prevent the public knowing the truth about their activities’. Others are talking about having Browne up on perjury charges, and the judge in the case is blustering about contempt of court.
We don’t need a privacy law – and the Mail on Sunday is right that courts are no place to decide what is published in the press. What we need instead is genuine privacy.
Browne’s resignation statement mentioned the words ‘privacy’ and ‘personal life’ no fewer than nine times. ‘I have kept my private life separate from my business life’, he said. ‘I have always regarded my sexuality as a private matter, to be kept private…. I shall not be commenting on my personal issues further. I wish to pursue my personal life in private.’
Privacy is one former virtue now held in complete contempt. To withhold from revelation is seen as a sign of dishonesty, a sign that you are not being completely straight with others. Those who are held up as good people are those who reveal all, who are not afraid to talk on breakfast TV about their innermost loves, fears or grief. We’re accustomed now to reading about the intricacies of arguments between famous couples, or the awkward details of their sex lives. Those who kiss and tell are greeted with cheers and asked to tell more.
It’s not that anybody cares much about personal morality. Nobody cares that Browne had a gay lover, and nobody would really have cared if he had said that he met him on an escort website. The only thing to be ashamed of now, it seems, is if you try to withhold revelation, hence the accusation shouted at Browne’s retreating back. The only problem these days is to say: ‘That’s private.’
What is lost in the attack on privacy is not just a chief executive or two; nor is it just that this stuff is pretty banal to read about every day. The importance of privacy is more fundamental: it is a necessary space for individuals to share the innermost parts of themselves with another, allowing them to ground and develop their personality.
We all have a public face, which is about doing a job well and being accountable for what we do. If Browne’s share price had gone to the wall so would he, and quite right, too. We play a part and we are judged by objective standards.
Privacy is based upon the very different principles of revelation and trust. It is to our lovers that we are not afraid to reveal the weaker or darker aspects of ourselves, a process that enables self-knowledge and self-development. This requires trust – trust that somebody will try to understand, that they will not use something against you, that they will forgive you if you made a mistake. It is the basic existential security provided by privacy that allows people to head out into the world and do battle. Personal relationships are a kind of bedrock that allows us to deal with the uncertainties and trials of the public world.
Most people’s private lives look unseemly when revealed to others, even if they don’t involve suitedandbooted.com. How often do we cringe when we overhear an argument between a couple, or when we read of celebrities’ pillow talk or pet names for each other? We cringe in part because the private sphere is a place where frailties and difficulties are discussed and dealt with. But we also cringe because each relationship has its own rules that outsiders cannot understand. The stories of how a couple met, where they wined and dined or how they broke up cannot make much sense to anybody but the couple themselves. The heartfelt becomes titillation when we read about Browne dressing Chevalier in Prada, setting up a company for him and buying him multimillion-pound houses.
In the past, it was those who betrayed the value of privacy who were shamed. Perhaps we need to recover this value in a new form – not out of old-fashioned prudery, but out of respect for individuals’ dignity and autonomy.
If there are villains in this piece, they are Chevalier and the Mail on Sunday, not Browne. In reality, there should be a shame associated with prying into strangers’ intimate lives, picking over the details of what people did together and how much money they spent doing it. There should be a shame associated with kiss-and-tell stories, which amount to throwing away somebody’s trust for the sake of column inches and cash.
Finally, there is nothing authentic about revealing every innermost aspect of yourself to all comers. Any self-possessing individual reveals themselves in parts, in the context of particular relationships, and they make discerning choices about what to show to whom. Somebody who puts every personal detail on a noticeboard to wear around their neck is throwing themselves away, and has neither relationships nor an inner life.
Privacy in this sense is a different matter to the much discussed ‘right to privacy’, upheld in human rights legislation and invoked by celebrities and their lawyers. The ‘right to privacy’ is a series of formal and relatively arbitrary benchmarks establishing what can be revealed (for example in various discussions about how the front seat in a restaurant is not private but the back seat is; or how a street between your house and your car is private but an ordinary high street is not). Genuine privacy is something we work out with our lovers and friends, rather than something established by vying parties in court.
‘I wish to pursue my personal life in private’, said Browne. We should take that parting shot to heart.
Tessa Mayes discussed the introduction of talking CCTV cameras in What’s worse than Big Brother? Little Brother and a government campaign to name and shame Enviro-criminals. Brendan O’Neill investigated the new censorship in Turning society into Room 101 and outlined After Hate speech, the war against ‘Mate Speech’. Steve Bremner exposed a Pick and mix attitude when it comes to free speech while Maria Grasso and Lee Jones argued If we want open borders, we need open debate. Or read on at spikedissue: Free Speech.
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