Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Privacy's about more than the paparazzi

The kind of protection the HRA offers is largely of use only to the rich. The law should tackle everyday intrusions head on

The Queen's demand that press photographers abide by their own professional code of conduct and not stake out Sandringham over the Christmas holiday carries with it an implied threat of legal action under the ad hoc privacy laws that are being formed in the courts.

Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (HRA) guarantees the right to privacy and family life, which has been used by a number of well-known people to give them a private space away from long-range cameras – today's Guardian editorial mentioned Fabio Capello and Princess Caroline of Monaco.

Although it seems right to give people what the editorial calls "a zone of privacy", this of course is privacy for the few who can afford to go to court, or threaten legal action. It does not seem to occur to our legislators that it is thoroughly inequitable, not to say illogical, to protect the head of state from the media, but not the public from a much greater intrusion by the state and its agencies.

Privacy is not an unqualified right, but it certainly must be held to mean the same for high and low, that is to say it is a quality that each one of us can aspire to and which is guaranteed by the law if we need. It is easy to argue that Capello and the royal family live under intolerable intrusion and that their experiences are nothing like the ordinary members of the public but to me the comparison seems invalid.

Celebrities and the public suffer different forms of intrusion. If we are to allow the construction of a body of law that protects the rich and famous, it is surely wrong not consider the huge expansion of CCTV systems, the use of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras to track journeys and store the data, and the plans for accessing data from all communications. The total effect of these systems will in the long run be much more serious than anything Capello has suffered on holiday, however much he is owed our sympathy.

This is a very delicate area, but my feeling is that the privacy laws being made on the back of the HRA underline problems with the act because it guarantees nothing upfront but instead requires people to go to law to establish their rights. It would be much more effective to create a proper body of privacy legislation that specifies acts that illegally damage or compromise a person's privacy, and this would apply to the state, the press and the big corporations that gather and store personal details.

When I argue with lawyers about the effectiveness of the HRA they always say that its beauty lies in its vagueness, which allows for much more flexibility in protecting people's rights. I can see their point but surely law that only protects the rich from one type of intrusion is hardly working in the favour of the common good, or indeed universal rights.

Source: The Guardian

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