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22 October 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Restraint or revelation?
Free speech and privacy in a confessional age. A spiked-report.

by Tessa Mayes

At the heart of the debate on free expression and privacy are questions concerning fundamental democratic values, and our most personal feelings.

All of us have different views about what we want kept private and what we are prepared to share publicly. Some people want to keep their private lives to themselves; others emote in public for fame and money. Individuals' attitudes to privacy and publicity are bound up with notions about the kind of life we want to lead, how we wish to present ourselves to others, and how we make sense of our lives and the world.

Today, it is frequently observed that public discourse is becoming increasingly reliant on private revelations - for example, discussion of the personal lives of politicians and celebrities. As Richard Sennett, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, outlined in his 1986 book The Fall of Public Man, the res publica has become burdened by the belief that social meanings are generated by the unstable feelings of human beings, the self-absorbed phenomenon called 'personality'.

'People are working out in terms of personal feelings public matters which properly can be dealt with only through codes of impersonal meaning', writes Sennett (1). This trend, he argues, corrodes the boundaries between the public and the private - the expression of man's two-sided social existence as stranger and friend. Sennett concludes that in public life, the 'absorption in intimate affairs is the mark of an uncivilised society' (2).

At the same time as public discourse becomes increasingly shaped around private, personal matters, we see an increased concern with the protection of individuals' privacy - especially from the media. Recent years have given rise to a new, subjective approach to free speech and privacy rights that alters their meaning.

The current interest in granting new privacy rights relies, not on the assumption that people need protection from interference into their private lives by the state, but that people need a state law to protect them from public discussion of their private lives. It is not that public discussion of private matters is viewed as a problem per se - it is seen as a problem if the subject of this discussion feels hurt or offended.

The question of what free speech, privacy, and rights should mean today is contentious
This trend has important implications for free speech. The arguments for new privacy rights rest on the notion that free expression and privacy rights need to be 'balanced' against each other. This effectively means that there is no such thing as a right to free speech - or, indeed, a right to privacy. The right to privacy has been redefined as a state protection from hurtful public discussion; and the right to free speech has become qualified by restricting speech that may cause offence. The decision about what can and cannot be said in the public realm about people's private lives is an arbitrary one, taken by a judge.

These two apparently conflicting rights are codified in the Human Rights Act (1998), in the form of Article 10 on a right to free expression and Article 8 on a right to privacy. This Act, which came fully into force in October 2000, has meant that, in practice, judges are deciding what they think counts as allowable speech, and expanding what privacy means. Armed with new powers, and supported by politicians, media regulators and others who argue that people need privacy protection from words and images, judges are eroding a vital democratic freedom.

While this development is disturbing, it is far from straightforward. What free speech, privacy, and rights should mean in today's society remains a contentious issue. This is reflected in the attempts to create practical resolutions to the apparently competing interests of privacy and free speech: the Articles on privacy and free expression in the Human Rights Act (1998), the development of the law of confidence and new media codes to do with free speech and privacy.

Like many journalists, I have for some time been concerned by the prospect of further laws and codes being imposed on the media. Already, official restrictions on what you can and cannot publish or broadcast frequently overshadow discussions about editorial matters. Yet free speech is not valuable only for journalists. It is essential for anyone wanting to express themselves and hear what others have to say.

This report gathers the opinions of newspaper editors, TV executives and editors, journalists, media lawyers and photographers, in an attempt to advance our understanding of free speech and privacy, and put the case for free speech in a confessional age.

This is part one of the spiked-report 'Restraint or revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age'.

To download the whole report in PDF format, click here [620Kb]

To download Adobe Acrobat Reader, click here

Read on:

Part Two: Privacy vs free speech: two competing rights?

Part Three: A qualified right to free speech

Part Four: Free speech and trivia

Part Five: Free speech and the 'right to know'

Part Six: Free speech and the public interest

Part Seven: The confusion over privacy

Part Eight: Privacy loses its meaning

Part Nine: Privacy, free speech and the media: some conclusions

Part Ten: Contents and acknowledgements

(1) Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, Faber and Faber, 1986, p5

(2) Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, Faber and Faber, 1986, p340

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