N8 Science Events: July, 2010

Who's watching you now? Do you mind?
By Helen Gavaghan, Leeds.
The Guardian took the view that David Blunkett's sex life was a legitimate media subject in the case of the story of allegations in 2004 that Blunkett, then the Home Secretary, was involved in fast tracking a visa application for someone who, it transpired, was his lover's cleaner1. Not at first, said David Leigh, the paper's investigations executive editor. Mr Blunkett being a cabinet minister was not, in the paper's view, sufficient reason to write about his sex life. Sex belongs in the private domain and politics in the public was their view. But the allegation and the relationship of the visa applicant to Blunkett's lover brought the story into the public domain. In Mr Leigh's view how to invigilate such lines is a significant element in the debate of the ethics of privacy and confidentiality.

Mr Leigh was speaking at an event which was the public face of a two day academic conference run by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Ethics Applied at the University of Leeds. Chris Megone, the centre's director and professor of applied ethics is a philosopher by training and someone who I have in the past interviewed about applied ethics in medicine.

On the same platform as Mr Leigh were Onora O'Neill, professor of philosophy at The University of Cambridge and a cross bench peer and Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). The fourth scheduled speaker, Pauline Neville-Jones, former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, cancelled because of an unexpected diary clash.

"Leave the media alone and concentrate
on restraining government."

David Leigh, The Guardian

Pro vice chancellor for research and historian Andrew Thompson chaired the event, pointing out the timeliness of debating privacy, citing stories about cctv, identity cards and MPs expenses and querying during the evening whether the media would be willing to be as thoroughly scrutinised about their decision making processes as are politicians.

First to speak was Matthew Taylor of RSA. He took as his theme the reasons New Labour applied to justify its increased surveillance of society. These were security led following the London bombings of 7th July, 2005. The second driver was to prevent people slipping through the net, particularly of social services. Finally Mr Taylor said that the reasoning was that collecting data centrally can be a powerful force for business innovation. The disbenefits, such as infringements of rights, did not have the same concrete feel within the New Labour policy agenda, he said.

Opinions varied among the speakers on the subject of whether there ought to be privacy legislation. Baroness O'Neill emphasized that the right to privacy is enshrined in the Human Rights Act and called the Data Protection Act of 1998 a disastrous piece of legislation which commercial users have got around whilst restraining the ordinary citizens right of access to public information. David Leigh forthrightly opposed privacy legislation, saying, "Leave the media alone and concentrate on restraining government." Though he thought the judgement in the case of Max Mosley and The Daily Mail was correct.

Baroness O'Neill thought that what the judges were trying to do was to extend the laws of confidentiality. The great argument in defence of press freedom, she said, goes back to Milton and is the role of the press in constructing the truth, though she said was conscious of how that could be abused to create scandal.

The second argument is self expression but she queried whether that right is the same for the powerful media organisations and the powerless. Her view: press freedom yes, but not of the kind that damages the freedom of the innocent citizen. A strong theme to emerge from the audience during the discussion following the panelists' presentations was the question of whether the internet is a public or private space. Mr Taylor asked if people realised how long what they write persists on line. And he said that he thought it inevitable that the State is going to collect more and more data about its citizens. Mr Leigh said he had thought about how to get from London to Edinburgh without being seen and concluded it was impossible, whilst Baroness O'Neill said she thought cctvs were a blot on the landscape and she thought it was worth asking what we had lost in this world of increased surveillance.

1. An Inquiry into an application for indefinite leave to remain, by Sir Alan Budd. December 2004. Ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 21st December, 2004.

At the request of John Gieve, permanent secretary to the Home Office, Sir Alan Budd made an independent inquiry as to whether David Blunkett had misused his official position as Home Secretary with respect to an application for indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Sir Alan established a time line of events and reports that he received full co-operation from Mr Blunkett and all those he approached, despite the inquiry having no powers of coercion and no statutory standing. Sir Alan was unable to establish whether or not Mr Blunkett gave any instructions in the case. The full report is officially archived and can be accessed at the url below. It is a concise and clear report.


Words, layout and code, Helen Gavaghan© All rights reserved.