Private Pasts and Public Interests

Here’s an interesting free speech case, from The Anorak:

“BBC star’s grandfather faced Nazi war crimes trial,” announces the [Daily] Mail…The Mail notes that the elder and now dead Szymon Serafinowizc appeared at the Old Bailey in 1997 accused of “enthusiastically” helping eradicate the 3,000-strong Jewish population around the capital of Minsk. He was a police chief in his native Belarus when it was occupied by the Nazis. The case was dropped because he was unfit to stand trial.

…”[Law firm] Schillings insisted that the allegations against [Peter] Serafinowicz’s grandfather were a private matter under the Human Rights Act. It demanded that the paper gave an undertaking never to publish the comedian’s connection to the war crimes case,” notes the paper.

Peter Serafinowicz chose to ignore Schillings’ advice.

I certainly can’t see any good reason why Serafinowicz’s family history needs to be made a matter of public discussion now, but I also don’t see why it should be suppressed by legal means (or even what the point would be of trying, given the particularly distinctive surname).

But to raise a more general point, and to move away from family history to personal history, how does the right to privacy relate more generally to things in a person’s past that might be controversial or discreditable? In UK libel law you can even in certain circumstances sue someone for writing something that is true, if “malice” can be proven.

I recently came across an essay on the subject by Sean Gabb, who is the chief ideologue of the British “libertarian right”. I’m not a fan of Gabb at all, and there is much in this essay to take issue with, but there were a few interesting paragraphs that caught my attention. Gabb gives two hypothetical examples, the first of which is a vicar who had once played a piano in a brothel. Should this youthful indiscretion be allowed to become public years later?

This is clearly an attack on his “interest in seclusion, or in his personal dignity and self-respect, or in being free from personal upset”. But, bearing in mind its truth, no good principle can be laid down by which its revelation ought to be restrained.

Suppose a man had once been in charge of a passenger ship, and, panicking, had deserted it in a storm, taking only the crew with him; and the ship’s survival and the safe arrival of the passengers had been matters left to chance. Everyone, perhaps, is liable at some time to act out of character; and, assuming no loss of life or great loss of property, he ought not to be pointed at for the rest of his life. But suppose that, some years after this lapse, he again takes charge of a ship and advertises for passengers: is the passing round of a warning to be made an actionable matter?

The answer is surely not. Yet where is the difference between these two hypothetical instances? It might be said that the second involves a revelation made in the public interest, and not the first. But it would be hard to imagine why a newspaper should want to take up space with the early life of an entirely private and untopical clergyman. Its most likely reason would be that he was now undertaking, or about to undertake, a work of interest to the public. This might be taking a party of children on a foreign holiday, or becoming Chairman of a Synodic committee, or leading a campaign for some change in the law. Depending on what he was doing, his past might be, to some people, of the utmost importance as a reflection on his character in the present. There might be people who would resolutely claim that, whatever he had done or was now doing, his past ought to be regarded as a closed book. There might be any number of others who would disagree. Parents, strict moralists, political opponents looking for proof of current hypocrisy – any of these might very well claim a right to know.

If someone is to have a right to privacy in this respect, either it must be absolute or it must be qualified on the grounds of there being a public interest to know the truth about his character. If absolute, the right would be clearly outrageous. If qualified, the courts would be put to the task of drawing lines where the mixed state of public opinion gives no guidance for drawing them…the line between what others should and should not be allowed the right to know is not one to be drawn by the courts.

This seems to me fairly straightforward, and I can’t see how a right or left “libertarian” could dissent from it and maintain political integrity.

We all know that all sorts of things in a person’s private past (or family background) could be dredged up simply to harass and distress, although in such cases one hopes that society is mature enough that the person doing the dredging will be repudiated by the public, rather than the victim. Laws suppressing such information, though, also risk legitimate enquiry in the public interest.

(Hat tip: Tim Ireland, who makes merry with the idea of the Daily Mail raising a Nazi family connection; in the 1930s the Mail notoriously backed British fascist Oswald Mosley)

4 Responses

  1. […] This blog post is the sequel to a post I made here. […]

  2. […] are unattractive. I wrote more about the subject of privacy and free speech here, noting some interesting hypothetical examples raised by (cough) Sean […]

  3. […] also wrote more about the subject of privacy and free speech here, noting some interesting hypothetical examples raised by (cough) UK right-libertarian Sean Gabb. […]

  4. […] discussed my own views on the right to privacy vs the right to free speech in a blog posting here. Although I’m not usually much of fan of his, I commended an essay on the subject by the […]

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