Culture

Is Privacy Such a Good Thing?

Much ink has been spilled on cancel culture, perhaps without considering the privacy culture that preceded it. Was it such a good thing to keep every evil so hidden away as we did? Perhaps now that we can converse, dialogue and indeed gossip, we can build better norms together.
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Celebrity couple in car hiding with hand from magazine photographers cameras © Motortion Films / shutterstock.com

July 15, 2023 00:55 EDT
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We human beings create morality. The gods don’t bequeath it to us. Morality provides a basis for making judgments and decisions in our personal conduct and professional settings. It shapes the way we approach all kinds of affairs. Moral frameworks change over time and space, and they may derive from faith, philosophy or just personal perspectives. Stories are also an important source: one of the ways we remind ourselves of what’s right and wrong is through drama. For decades, the dramas we read and watched built and renewed principles and guidelines that helped us decide what’s right and wrong, good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable.

Precious scandals

But we don’t need them anymore: we have social media. The likes of Twitter serve as tools for moral reasoning and help individuals navigate complex ethical issues and dilemmas in their personal and social lives. I can already hear you laughing at my pretense. But indulge me: so far this year, the British have been gifted two precious scandals that have exercised their imaginations, powers of discernment and, best of all, their ethical reasoning.

The first scandal featured a popular TV presenter who was found to have conducted a relationship with a younger male colleague. The presenter, Phillip Schofield, worked for ITV, the UK’s main commercial television network. He resigned after conceding that he had “lied” to his boss and his agent, as well as the media, about what he called an “unwise, but not illegal” affair.

With the ink barely dry on this scandal, the second also features a TV presenter. The case involves a dichotomy about which British society does not yet have a clear idea of where to draw the dividing line.

The Sun newspaper recently reported that an unnamed BBC presenter paid a teenager £35,000 (about $45,000) for sexually explicit photos over a three-year period. The young person was allegedly 17 years old when the payments started. According to reports, the mother of the teenager first complained to the national broadcaster in May 2023 and the BBC undertook to investigate the allegations.

Presumably frustrated at the lack of progress, the mother took the story to The Sun, which is the country’s best-selling newspaper. There followed a guessing game in which anyone on social media could hazard their own hypotheses on the identity and motivations of the presenter. Even the prospect of defaming BBC personnel didn’t deter tweeters. In efforts to ward off speculators, several of the BBC’s best-known presenters went onto social media themselves, explicitly to say they were not the culprit. This seemed a guileless maneuver and probably heightened suspicions on the Shakespearean principle, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

Unlike the former scandal, this one may indeed contain illegal activities, though at the time of writing this has not been decided by a court. What is known is that, like the Schofield case, it has gripped the public and inclined the twitterati, in particular, to flex their moral muscles.

Questions, questions.

Think of some of the more immediate questions. Quite apart from the obvious, “Whodunit?”—at the time of publication, this seems to be an answered question—there are other enticing challenges, such as, “Does the teenager bear any responsibility?” After all, they agreed to take and send pictures of themselves naked in exchange for money. They then decided to spend the money, not on a three-year university education, but on crack cocaine. Were they mature enough to make a clear-headed, informed decision? The age of consent in the UK is 16, but this does not apply in this case. The Protection of Children Act, of 1978, specifies that it’s a crime to take, make, share and possess indecent images of people under 18 years old. So, the presenter could be facing 26 weeks in prison. Would justice be served?

Another question is: Should the BBC bear any responsibility for allowing the presenter to operate, however covertly? “I blame this BBC man for destroying my child’s life,” said the teenager’s mother. “Taking my child’s innocence and handing over the money for crack cocaine that could kill my child.” Where does the blame lie?

We exist in an environment in which malicious gossip, scandalous relationships and transgressions that bring dishonor, disgrace and infamy are parts of the daily menu of news. Our media, even the serious media, specialize in gossip, hearsay and miscellaneous tittle-tattle, mainly on celebrities. Since 2006 when Twitter launched, we have all had a more direct way of sharing our views. Although Twitter’s original idea was to allow people to send words that were as inconsequential as the chirruping of birds, it soon morphed into a gossip medium.

The temptations of Twitter

It’s probable no one anticipated how tempting Twitter would become. It’s not as if people were enticed into sharing confidential information. After all, Twitter didn’t coax or sweet-talk tweeters into disclosing anything they didn’t want to. But it offered a sort of purgatory device. I don’t mean it was a place of suffering or torment for those wishing to expiate their sins before going to heaven: just a way of venting your thoughts. In a kind of self-perpetuating manner, others responded with comparable candor and lack of inhibition to find the release was surprisingly purifying. That’s what’s going on at the moment: everyone is excitedly ridding themselves of their opinions and, in the process, passing judgment in what’s become an online moral universe.

All this could tempt us into believing that privacy, at least privacy in the traditional sense of the condition, has disappeared. Twitter is now part of the natural order of things. Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp and the most newcomer Threads have added impudence and brio, making sharing arguably the defining experience of our time. We share money, knowledge and hours upon hours of our time; it would be untenable to ask people not to share what used to pass as a private life. Is this a bad thing?

It seems only a few years ago that privacy shielded all manner of vile practices that are now in the common domain. Child abuse was hushed up. Domestic violence was kept secret as an internal family issue. Women were often persuaded they were partly responsible if they were raped. People with developmental disorders, such as Asperger syndrome, seldom revealed and less still discussed their experiences. And well-known TV personalities were allowed to get away with vile abuses of privilege and status, in the secure knowledge that they were sheltered by a code of silence. These once-private matters have been turned into social affairs.

Much as it might disgust people to accept that so much thought and time have been spent on matters that could be handled in a hushed-up way without damaging reputations or harming the credibility of national institutions, celebrity culture has brought with it a refreshing encroachment: the public has trespassed on the private.

[Ellis Cashmore is the author of Kardashian Kulture]

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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