Magazine article The Spectator

Private Property

Magazine article The Spectator

Private Property

Article excerpt

Celebrities have a right to profit from the exploitation of personal information and so do you

Something has been bugging me about the Leveson inquiry, and it's not a private investigator hired by News International. It's the pervasive line of defence that you hear when it comes to the invasion of privacy, and with the Sunday Sun rising in the east, it's worth addressing.

There's no chance the new Sunday redtop will revive the black arts of its predecessor and indulge in what the Met's Sue Akers has called the Sun 's 'culture of illegal payments'. But there is every chance that it will carry one basic assumption over intact. The assumption that celebrities who give interviews, pose for photographs, or in any way make capital of their private lives aren't entitled to complain when commercial interests make capital of their private lives against their will.

Spoken and unspoken - the most extreme form of the position was given by the magnificent News of the World hack Paul 'Privacy is for Paedos' McMullan - is the following basic argument. If you agree to be photographed inside your home with your children in order to promote your perfume, you can't then object when you're papped picking the kids up from school. Once you've invaded your own privacy, you're fair game.

That's the way it works: you don't get to pick and choose.

Too few people, in response to this bullying assertion, are asking the perfectly reasonable question: why not? Why don't you get to pick and choose? The guiding figure of speech when the subject is discussed is that of a contract - celebrities 'signed up', we're told, to the whole living-in-public shebang.

But a contract, Faustian or otherwise, is precisely what has not been signed.

If you choose to hold a yard sale one weekend, why should that legitimise someone nicking your telly the following weekend? The difference between a prearranged shoot for Hello!

magazine and a Sunday tabloid's expose of the difficulties in your marriage is the difference between consensual sex (or, if you insist, prostitution) and rape.

We rightly take a dim view of the line that promiscuous women are 'asking for it'. Does the logic not extend?

The fundamental problem, it seems to me, is that we're thinking of privacy in the wrong way. We're thinking of it as an abstract good.

At once slightly smitten and slightly contemptuous, we watch folk from off the telly complaining to Leveson and we think: once you've made your private life a commodity, it's your own silly fault if you lose control of it. What makes the private behaviour of 'ordinary people' different, runs this line of reasoning, is that it doesn't enter the marketplace.

The problem with that argument is that it is, simply, balls. The new digital economy is almost entirely based on the commodification of private information. Every time you swipe your supermarket loyalty card, you are exchanging private information - building a detailed record of where and when you shop and what you buy - for tiny amounts of money translated into Clubcard or Nectar points.

On social networking sites, the deal is more intimate than an exchange of marketing data. You pony up private information about your sexuality, your friendships, your movements and your consumer behaviour in exchange for any number of things: fun, convenience, a sense of connectedness, or the chance to play FarmVille. …

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