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What does Paul McMullan, the dishevelled former News of the World hack who looks like he just wandered out of a Charles Bukowski novel, have in common with radical feminists? A deep suspicion and even loathing of privacy.
There was outrage across the civilised world this week, an almost audible mass dropping of jaws, when McMullan appeared before the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking and press ethics and said "privacy is for paedos". Rubbishing the notion that celebs, or anyone else for that matter, has the right to an unfettered private life, McMullan insisted that the desperate plea "Stop invading my privacy!" is something only wicked people say when they want to cover up dodgy antics.
"In 21 years of invading people's privacy, I've never actually come across anyone who’s been doing any good," McMullan said. "Privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things. Privacy is for paedos. Fundamentally, nobody else needs it."
Cue outrage across the media, the blogsphere and in Twitterland, where McMullan has been referred to as "evil", of a "different species", and "subhuman". All of which is strange when you consider that he only said, in less couth terms, what feminists, liberal politicians and numerous governments have been arguing for the best part of a decade: namely that the private sphere is a peculiar, frightful place, which civil society (by which they really mean "me and my heavyhanded mates") has a duty to snoop on and monitor.
With a little bit of finessing, the ugly phrase "privacy is for paedos" could actually be the rallying cry of the radical feminist lobby. For years, leading feminist academics have fought tooth-and-nail to dismantle and destroy the Enlightenment ideal of maintaining a distinction between public life and private life, on the basis that bad things often happen "behind closed doors" – especially within the family – and therefore private life should be an issue of public concern.
Books with titles such as Why Privacy Isn't Everything: Feminist Reflections on Personal Accountability, written by American academic Anita L. Allen, give a flavour of modern-day feminist disdain for the idea of private life. In that text, Allen argued that people ought to be more made more publicly accountable for "intimacies relating to sex, health, child-rearing, finances and other matters termed 'private' ".
Leading feminist thinker Catharine MacKinnon, foreshadowing McMullan’s "privacy is for paedos" line, has put forward a "feminist critique of privacy", which claims that all too often the so-called ideal of privacy is "used to cover up the repression and physical harm [suffered by] women in the domestic sphere". That's only a fancier, slightly more erudite way of saying what McMullan said at Leveson – that "privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things".
In her book The Value of Privacy, a key defence of the importance of having an unpoliced private sphere, the German academic Beate Roessler saw fit to attack the increasingly shrill feminist tirade against privacy. She fretted about the trend for feminist thinkers to posit "theories that would abandon the distinction between public and private entirely".
Indeed, in recent years the feministic notion that the private sphere is the site of unspeakable abuse, and thus the "right to privacy" is something fundamentally harmful to women and children, has gained massive traction in political and cultural circles. The phrase "behind closed doors" is now used by everyone from domestic-abuse charities to coppers to depict family life as cesspit of verbal, emotional and physical depravity. And you can't so much as walk past a bookshop these days without catching glimpse of shelves heaving with misery memoirs – with titles such as Don't Tell Mummy, Daddy's Little Girl and Betrayed – which are really only the odious end-product of years of political activism that has depicted home life as hairy and privacy as dangerous.
You'd never know it from the weird sense of shock that greeted Paul McMullan's comments at Leveson, but for years now it has actually been respectable, even fashionable, to assault privacy. Here in Britain, where McMullan's "privacy is for bad people" schtick caused a collective gnashing of teeth, government institutions have been laying waste to private life for the past 10 to 15 years.
Under the New Labour government in particular, "privacy" became a dirty word. Indeed, the rallying cry of our Blairite rulers was "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" – an alarmingly Stalinist turn of phrase that has always stuck in my craw. What they meant was that only shifty people, only those with something horrible to hide, would ever dare to complain about official intrusions into private life. So as New Labour coated Britain with CCTV cameras, tried desperately to introduce ID cards, and interfered relentlessly into family life and the realm of parenting, anyone who kicked up a fuss and said "what about privacy?" was accused of having something to hide.
Sound familiar? Yep, this is the exact same argument now put forward by McMullan. In insisting that "privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things", McMullan reveals that he is more Son Of Blair than Murdochian monster, a man clearly influenced by the radical feminist, leftish critique of private life that has intensified over the past decade. Perhaps the chattering classes are writing him off as a "different species" because they can't handle the fact that, in truth, he is spouting ideas very similar to theirs, only in red-top rather than academic lingo.
The ideal of privacy is actually a very important one. We all need the freedom and autonomy of the private sphere in order to develop loving, nurturing relationships, work out our feelings, and develop our personalities. But the problem with the Murdoch-bashing Johnny-Come-Latelys, who only now seem to be discovering that privacy is under attack and who think it is all the doing of allegedly soulless people like Paul McMullan, is that they are adopting an extraordinarily elitist, two-tier approach to the issue of privacy: they turned a blind eye to the all-out war on ordinary people's privacy that was pursued by government officials over the past decade, yet now shed copious buckets of tears over the fact that Sienna Miller once got papped when she was exiting a nightclub.
That is, they didn't seem to mind it when it was only mere mortals – gruff men, "bad mums", chavs, the masses – who were being constantly spied on and kept in check by privacy-loathing apparatchiks. But they now find their hearts breaking and their lips wobbling upon hearing that some celebs were once followed around by the likes of McMullan. It is hard to avoid concluding that they think the private lives of actors and singers are more valuable than the private lives of builders and bus drivers.
Privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things. Privacy is for paedos. Fundamentally, nobody else needs it.