In the Public Interest?

This sort of story really annoys me.

The French President, no a minor Z-list reality TV star he, is at the centre of a media storm for refusing to answer questions about his private life. That France has a different media culture with regards to the peccadilloes of public figures  (albeit one that is coming under attack from a more intrusive and moralistic Anglo-Saxon media) is a truism in Britain. The French are seen as a strange people for not seeming to care particularly what their leaders are getting up to (and with who) when not on the job. Shockingly it seems that if you are a politician or celebrity in France there are limits to the levels of press intrusion into your life that society will sanction. Perhaps this is why it is Britain, not France, which is witnessing an unprecedented series of arrests and trials of journalists and editors over phone-hacking. You have a lot less far to go before you cross the line in France it seems.

This social humiliation of Hollande is just the kind of behaviour from the press (like the publishing of topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge) that brings about a legal reaction against it in France that until recently was absent from Britain. Whether or not that is right, it is the backlash against press intrusion (in part thanks to new technologies) that has focused too much on the private foibles of politicians’ private lives and not enough on their public work, that weakens vital democratic institutions. The trouble is, who the French President is or is not in bed with is of no public interest (i.e. business of ours) unless:

(a) it is a breach of the law/national security (such as media accusations that then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi slept with an underage prostitute).

(b) it is exposing hypocrisy (like the revelation of anti-gay Pastor Ted Haggard’s affairs with male sex workers in the US a few years back).

Since Julie Gayet is not a Russian spy or a mafia don, and Hollande did not campaign on a family values platform, I ask the question of how this newsworthy? The British media’s finger-pointing and snickering in particular is just depressing in a supposedly sexually mature and enlightened age. People have affairs and change partners all the time outside of politics. Is it a surprise that politicians and actresses have universal human characteristics too? Or are they supposed to be forced backwards into an older model of prudish public behaviour as a price for their elevation? I often wonder how comfortable journalists would be if their own love lives and finances were subject to the kind of neo-Victorian scrutiny  the press rakes political and celebrities figures over with.

The day is coming soon now when the technologies of facial recognition, drones, body language analysis and social media will put us all back to the rural village. We will look at a stranger in the street and be able to know everything about them in a mircosecond. I dread it, because from what I see in the papers today, we as a society have not even begun to work out the social codes and mores to deal with this deluge of private information. Privacy, despite what internet businesses and the media may think, is vital in a democratic system. People need private space to be human in, to relax, and to make their mistakes in life without it being turned into a football or used against them.  Intrusion into this space by outsiders, be they the government, companies or your neighbours, is the mark of an authoritarian society, not a free one.

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