Sunday, March 02, 2008

Get off my life!

Twice this week I've seen television shows with the word 'News' in the title but which featured news items that didn't actually have any news in them. One was Katie Holmes denying that she was pregnant. That was the whole actual news item - Katie Holmes, wife of actor Tom Cruise, has denied that she is pregnant. And the second item was that serial employee-whacker Naomi Campbell left hospital (having had an ovarian cyst removed) in a helicopter.

News?

Just the week before, airtime was devoted to the fact that Nancy Reagan had fallen over but hadn't broken anything. Let's put that into some perspective: the aged widow of a dead former US president who was in office nearly 30 years ago came a bit of a cropper but wasn't injured.

News?

It's madness. Have we become such incurable infomaniacs that we are happy to let the arteries of our media get clogged with this kind of non-story pseudo-news? Surely there were more newsworthy items happening in the world on those days? And since when did the private lives of celebrities become news items? Doesn't the very definition of the word 'private' mean that we shouldn't be privy to certain information and images? It's not news, it's gossip.

We'd all be enraged if we felt that we were being unduly scrutinised. And yet, there is, apparently, an insatiable appetite for learning the ins and outs of everyone else's lives. Well, judging by the sales of OK and Heat and other such magazines, there is. And the TV channels are stuffed with celebrity This, celebrity That, and, most luridly, celebrity The Other. Whatever happened to privacy?

It's a subject that obviously pings the braces of writer and comedian Ben Elton. On this week's edition of Radio 4's excellent The Museum of Curiosity, he suggested that the concept of privacy be consigned to the museum:

'From CCTV in the streets to the webcams in our bedrooms, we have become our own Big Brother', he ranted in inimitable Elton style. 'Privacy isn't dead, but (...) it's terminally ill and we're certainly hastening its demise. What I'm saying is that the idea of exposing yourself has become not just something that people are encouraged to do but something people want to do. (...) We've given up on any sense of ourselves and yet we try to expose ourselves at all times. The idea that we all need to hear everything about everybody's dysfunction; that we need to see and know everything about everybody is deeply worrying. And with Facebook and Myspace we've got to a point where young people who watch Big Brother and watch people wandering around aimlessly talking about themselves all the time, (...) are introduced to the astonishing fiction that talking about yourself is somehow empowering, indeed noble and in some way enriching. (...) This becomes translated into the Facebook Generation where you show everything. And, frankly, I think the idea that we all share the details of every embarrassing piss-up with everybody we've ever met and all of their friends, all the time, is a real problem for society. (...) I say that we should all rediscover a bit of self-respect; respect for yourself, and respect for other people's right not to be interested in you. Shut up, and keep your agony, your heartbreak, your learning journey, your personal growth and your fabulous new breasts that have allowed you to be the you you want to be ... private.'

Admittedly, some celebrities court the media and are happy to expose whatever they need to expose to keep their profile high. But the worm is turning ... just recently, My Name is Earl star Jaime Pressley was bemoaning the fact that, despite working hard for 12 years to get into Hollywood, she's been overtaken by a number of people whose only claim to fame has been appearing in a home made sex video on the web. 'All the time I could have saved just by making a sex video', she said, very much tongue-in-cheek.

But it's not just celeb privacy we should be worrying about. The Museum of Curiosity went on to point out that the UK now has 5 million CCTV cameras - that's one for every 12 people - and fully 20% of all the security cameras in the world. And within 200 yards of George Orwell's flat where he wrote 1984, there are now 32 CCTV cameras.

In an actual real UK news story this week, we heard that a shopkeeper had been cleared of manslaughter having wrestled the knife from an armed robber and, during the ensuing struggle, killed the robber. The verdict was universally welcomed as a positive strike for commonsense but, mentioned briefly in amongst the polemic and frankly ridiculous levels of praise for a man who had been forced - on fear of losing his own life - to kill another man, was the fact that Mr Singh, the shopkeeper, was initially arrested on suspicion of murder. Therefore, his fingerprints and DNA were taken and are now part of the national database. Once again, the subject of there being a compulsory national fingerprints and DNA register was raised by journos. After all, went the argument, if you don't do anything wrong, you have nothing to fear. I can see some sense in that. But my worry is that the introduction of such a database would mean me signing over yet another small piece of my privacy. The fact that I am a law-abiding citizen is neither here nor there. Because I am law-abiding, no one needs to have my fingerprints and DNA for any legitimate reason. Why should I be made to feel guilty because I don't particularly want an untrustworthy government to have them? Plus, there is the issue of what the data will be used for. And whether or not some civil servant will lose it - as happened to other data with spectacularly embarrassing consequences just last year.

I think that Ben Elton, ranting and angry as he is, has hit the nail on the head. We do need to rediscover what privacy is - all of us, whether celebrity or prole. We should all be able to enjoy our lives without intrusion. There has always been a fine balance between the human rights of freedom and privacy and the need for some degree of surveillance to keep us all safe in our beds. But the scales are tipping swiftly, and not to our advantage.

So please, Mr Newsreader and Ms Reporter ... tell me what I need to know in order to make informed decisions about my life. Tell me about traffic problems and political issues that affect me. Tell me about the weather and crime trends and the economy. But please spare me any information about the fashion sense, relationships, mental health or gynaecology of so-called celebrities.

That's a matter for them, their loved ones and their physicians, not me.

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