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Gillian Keegan’s foot-in-mouth moment
The education secretary’s on-camera gaffe is a reminder of the importance of separating public and private.
‘Does anyone ever say, “You know what, you’ve done a f---ing good job, because everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing?’ No signs of that, no?”’
Gillian Keegan may have been exasperated by a day of critical questions from journalists after ordering scores of schools to close, partly or fully, over potentially dangerous concrete in their buildings. But why on earth was she sounding off to an ITV journalist with a camera about her private thoughts, both about her own treatment and the failings of her colleagues? Equally, why has an off-the-cuff comment become headline news? Whatever the merits of Keegan’s handling of the affair, or her naivete in talking out of turn in the presence of a ‘hot mike’, this foot-in-mouth incident is the latest example of the inability to separate public and private today.
From intimate selfies to leaking of personal messages, the digital age seems to relentlessly blur the boundaries between private and public. Not only are we encouraged to bare it all for social media, but the idea of private or secret communication is increasingly seen as a cover for all kinds of ‘online harms’. Indeed, the UK’s Online Safety Bill seeks to remove end-to-end encryption in the name of allowing authorities to protect children from online ‘grooming’ by predators and to prevent the sharing of harmful, even criminal, material.
Yet associating private messaging with the most vile and malevolent communications just feels like an excuse for official surveillance. Do we want all communication to be scripted or to be robotically correct according to the mores of our time, just in case Big Brother is watching?
But it is not just social media or new laws that seem to threaten privacy. Indeed, official bodies are subject to endless leaks, baring the details of this or that supposedly private meeting or conversation. It seems many individuals, often in senior positions, cannot wait to blurt out their concerns over one policy or another to the media or in a Whatsapp group.
Perhaps this is no bad thing: debate about crucial issues has been widely informed by the leak of previously private correspondence, such as the 100,000+ messages between the former health secretary Matt Hancock and others at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The leak revealed important information about the decisions surrounding lockdowns.
But even if much valuable information was gleaned from the leak, should we be worried about the wider implications of removing the assumption of privacy?
For example, many worry that recent charges against former police officers for sharing racist messages in a private WhatsApp group chat upend the principle that what we say ‘behind closed doors’ is a private matter. In a similar vein, the Scottish Government’s recent removal of a ‘dwelling defence’ to a landmark hate-crime bill explicitly invites the courts to police what is said in private. Likewise, many campaigners point to the fact that Britain is one of the most surveilled countries in the world, with the previous privacy of walking the street or meeting friends in a pub now subject to the glare of Big Brother.
Privacy is vital and it is worth defending. It allows us to ‘think out loud’, to test ideas without the risk of public scrutiny or condemnation. We can share concerns and jokes that allow us to let off steam without an off-hand comment being confused with a considered opinion. A comment we think is suitable among friends might be deemed outrageous when torn out of that context.
Privacy in everyday life means we can ‘be ourselves’ without facing the judgement of others. When the then Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, was filmed dancing and drinking at a party last year, she faced complaints for undermining Finland’s ‘reputation and security’. But do we want to be ruled by teetotal bores?
What is so valuable about privacy – and what is at risk if we lose too much of it? Should we welcome the tendency to make everything public, especially if it roots out backward attitudes or exposes those who misuse power? What’s the relationship between the public and private, and where does the balance lie?