It's obvious to anyone with a shred of decency that to hack your way into the phone messages of people who have lost a son in Afghanistan or of a little girl who's been kidnapped and killed by a paedophile is the lowest, most shabby and distasteful action anyone could take. In the latter case I would have thought it constitutes perversion of the course of justice and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law (which is not all that great, these days, it seems).
Nevertheless I have to confess myself deeply puzzled by the whole phone-hacking controversy. For a start, it's been clear that the explosion in technological forms of communication means that privacy will inevitably be endangered. Haven't we seen this coming for years? Why are we now so surprised and indignant that it's actually come to pass?
Our medical records are now online, and available to anyone with the skill to access them, as are our criminal records. If I go to Comet to buy a new fridge, the shop assistant only has to know my name and part of my address and he can dial up all sorts of information about me. My credit rating is available to anyone who has a need to know, and the DVLA merrily sells my personal details to anyone who pays for it, and apparently sees nothing wrong in doing so.
When I go online I am accessing a world of information through my Internet Service Provider, who therefore knows what porn sites I visit and who I send emails to. Why should I assume, as I sit in front of my computer with a beer in one hand and a wad of tissues in the other, that what I am doing is private? It isn't, and can't be, and never was. If this bothers me, I should find other ways of communicating with the rest of humanity.
Many of us – me not included, as I am proud to say that I have no idea how to use Facebook and Twitter, and can't see any good reason for finding out – are happy to share the most intimate and trivial details of our daily lives with a host of others. We call them “friends”, apparently, but that's not what they are. They're just strangers who want to take a prurient look into our privacy, and we are content to let them. Because of this website I do occasionally get emails asking me to be someone's friend, but no sooner have I thought “Who the hell are you and why should I be your friend?” than my finger has hit the delete button all by itself.
When we leave Voicemail messages for someone who really is a friend or acquaintance, that message sits in a server somewhere, and can be accessed by anyone who knows how. Why is this surprising? Would you write a personal message down and pin it on a lamp post?
Then there's the other side of the issue: why do we expect to be able to maintain privacy? If you're rich and/or famous and/or powerful, does it not occur to you that others might take interest in your doings? If you're a well-known footballer playing in the Première League every week, is not the price of your £200,000-a-week salary the knowledge that the public will take an interest in the state of your bald patch? If you've put yourself up to be elected as an MP, with the money and privilege that entails, why should you expect that your employers – the taxpayers – won't be interested in how well you do your job, what unusual activities you undertake in your spare time, and whether you're spending their money appropriately? If you do the crime, be prepared to serve the time, as they say. Or if you can't stand the heat, don't go in the kitchen. There's a lot of sense in old clichés sometimes.
Naturally it's sad that Gordon Brown has a sick child, and we should all feel sympathetic. And naturally Gordon Brown doesn't want his son to face a phalanx of press photographers every time he has a hospital appointment. After all, it's not the poor kid's fault his dad was a lousy Prime Minister. But these things can be dealt with, by anyone with the slightest common sense – and Gordon Brown is, presumably, a fairly intelligent person. What I don't understand is why the information needs to be a secret. Why keep so quiet about it? There's no shame in having a sick child. Brown may claim that it's no one else's business but his own, but the fact is that his political ambitions caused him to intrude himself in the personal business of every man and woman in the country, so ... fair's fair.
Amidst all the media frenzy surrounding the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch and News International there have been a few plaintive voices piping up about the benefits of a free and powerful press. The very worst thing that could come out of all this is any close control over the activities of the press. If the press had not sailed very close to the wind at times, we'd never have found out about the MPs' expenses scandal; much of the original information that broke that story was obtained illegally. Thank God it was.
The same applies to cash-for-questions, and Jonathan Aitken's battle against the Guardian, and Bernie Ecclestone trying to buy the Labour government for a million pound donation, Mark Oaten's rentboys, Jeffrey Archer's prostitute (nothing wrong with prostitutes, I reckon, but the problem was when he sued the newspaper, lied, and won), Tessa Jowell's mortgage, Labour borrowing millions of pounds to fund their 2005 election campaign ... you get my drift. If we don't have a strong, daring, nosy press the bastards will just do what they damn well like, as we all know.
We need the press, because in the very nature of things we aren't usually able to find out the facts for ourselves. But we badly need those facts, and if some of them are unpalatable or are obtained in an unpalatable way, that's just tough.
When I and many others complained about the proposal to introduce Identity Cards containing loads of personal information, a common retort was “If you're nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear”. I haven't yet heard anyone saying this about the celebrities who had their phones hacked, but they should.
Speaking of facts, I'd like to indulge in a bit of a personal rant, and I'm doing it in public by publishing it on this website, but it is of course private and nobody from the press should read it ... er, does that make any sense? No, I thought not.
The fact is that there's no such thing as a fact. I frequently have people who've read one of my pages emailing me to say “you want to get your facts straight”. What they actually mean is that I should accept their version of the truth, not my own.
Take speed cameras, for instance. I was taken to task recently for using the expression “safety cameras”, because of course they don't monitor safety, they only measure speed. Anyway, I once talked to a policeman who told me he wasn't very keen on speed cameras. What he really liked, he said, was to follow a speeding driver, stop him, and “educate” him. This education would take the form of a lecture on why speeding is dangerous, and how devastating the injuries caused by speeding frequently are. It would be in vain for the errant driver to say that the police's own figures show that excessive speed is a causative factor in only 7.3% of accidents, and that most of the dreadful injuries were caused by drink, drugs, or simple inattention. The policeman would insist: he knew “the facts”, he would tell the driver “the facts” and “the facts” would speak for themselves.
I watched a wildlife programme the other night, about seahorses. Charming little creatures that live in beds of seagrass in shallow waters off the South Coast. Yachtsmen visiting that particular bay would drop anchor, their anchor chains would scrape across the sand as the tide swung them round, and the seagrass would be unable to get a toehold, thus limiting the habitat into which the seahorses might expand if they wanted. This meant that there were only about forty seahorses there, when there ought to have been three or four times as many (it wasn't made clear how the environmentalists knew how many there ought to be, but I'm sure they weren't guessing. I mean, they were talking facts, weren't they?) There was no evidence that any seahorse had been harmed in the making of that particular anchorage, and it wasn't actually proved that the anchor chains were doing what the environmentalists said, although it sounds plausible. Still, so far as these worthies were concerned, the facts were that as usual the wicked humans were destroying the poor defenceless animals. What was needed was “education”. The yachtsmen had to be told “the facts”.
When it comes down to it, facts are just what you think they are. Very few facts are capable of conclusive proof, and facts can change over the years. It was once a fact that the earth was flat. Then it was a fact that the earth is round. Now it's a fact that the earth bulges in the middle.
Global Warming is a fact, apparently. So much of a fact that it's permissible to persecute anyone who disagrees, to deny them funding, even to issue death threats. I'm not aware that anyone has actually been killed for denying Global Warming, but it's only a matter of time. More recently, Global Cooling has become a fact – for some. God is a fact for some, and history tells us that there certainly have been many deaths to support that fact. Mohammed is a fact for others, so much that some are prepared to blow themselves up for him. Conan Doyle believed that fairies were a fact. Facts are just what you think at the moment. Next year a new set of facts will come along.
It all depends what you want to believe, and where you're standing at the time. Looking across the room as I type, I'm prepared to state as a fact that the cat is sitting on the table. She knows she isn't supposed to be up there, and has the good grace to look a little shifty.
But is it a fact? It might be to me, but suppose I was the cat? She has no concept of “table”, any more than she understands a left-hand thread or a piece of Mozart. To her, a table is just a bit more up. Can you really sit on something that doesn't exist? Is her perception of the world in any way inferior to mine? She can see in the dark, and I couldn't catch a mouse.
Or suppose I was the table? If the table had any sentience it could well be thinking “This idiot cat may think she's sitting on me. What she doesn't know is that I am gallantly holding her up in the air and preventing her from crashing to the floor and hurting herself. Not that I expect any thanks, of course”. Or it might think “Ooh yes, come on, baby, sit on my face, you dirty girl ...”
The worst offenders are those who know the least, frankly. The more ignorant you are, the firmer your grasp on those “facts” that suit you, and the more belligerent you are in forcing them on others. There have been remarkably few terrorist outrages committed by Oxford graduates, and so far as I know the membership list of Mensa includes no one with a suspicious bulk under their jacket and wires sticking out of their trousers.
Scientists ought by rights to have the clearest grasp of the facts. They seem to spend their lives trying to find out more. But you rarely find a scientist stamping his feet on the floor and shouting “You want to get your facts right!” What you do find is scientists saying “Yes, this theory fits the evidence as we know it, so we assume it is more likely to be a reasonable explanation. Until a better theory comes along, we'll use this one.” And if someone disagrees with them, they tend to say “Ah, yes, but your explanation is based on a flawed study which was not subject to peer review and therefore has no validity”.
Then next year they invent a new theory. Salt is bad for you, salt is good for you, you need to drink 8 glasses of water a day, water is poison, the earth is warming, the earth is cooling, the Sun is going to explode, the Sun is heading for a quiet period, the Earth is flat, the Sun goes round the Moon, space is empty, space is full of stuff, the world is 1,700 years old, lead in petrol makes engines cleaner, thalidomide the wonder drug, if you travel at more than 30mph on a train you'll suffocate, rats are created from dung-hills by parthenogenesis, it's more merciful to torture a non-believer to death so that they die in a state of repentance and may go to heaven ... sorry, wandering off the point a bit. They're all facts, though, or have been at some time.
No, facts suck. I spit on facts. Stick to good old-fashioned prejudice, and if anyone questions you, just shout louder.
It works for me. And that's a fact.
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
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