What would you do if naked pictures emerged of a celebrity you liked? Or one you didn’t? What about a slew of emails that were meant to be private that were hacked and then leaked into the public domain? Would you turn away from them, tutting. Or might you be tempted to read them? Would your inclination to read them increase if you liked the person, or if you really disliked them?
We seem confused about all of this at the moment. The leak of David Beckham’s emails has condensed the confusion. Most of us believe that private communications should be private. Most of us believe that people’s private communications should not be hacked. And yet whenever they are hacked and then released we cannot help but crawl over the results. Perhaps we should pause. A few years ago conversations were released which had taken place between the then Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Polish Finance Minister, Jacek Rostowski. The conversations included various disobliging comments about various allies of Poland. Swear words were also shockingly used. When the tapes emerged the world’s press – including Britain’s – were able to run prominent stories pretending, among other things, to be shocked that any politicians would have ever used bad language. The press has a remarkable ability to play the shocked little missy at times like this. But amid all the primness and the enjoyment of friends and foes alike over the political embarrassment of two politicians, almost nobody bothered to ask where the tapes had come from. Whose interest might it have been in that two Polish politicians should find themselves embarrassed in such a way? How did anyone else come across them?
At an infinitely less serious level it’s the same with the Beckham emails. Now that they have been released the media and public have had a great time reading them and wallowing in the various solecisms of David Beckham. Not least his eagerness for a knighthood and snarkiness about Katherine Jenkins. Personally I should think that anyone wishing to criticise Katherine Jenkins could find ample justification in any recording of her trying to sing. Likewise, anyone inclined to criticise David Beckham could simply reflect – as I sometimes do – on the Beckham’s gross eagerness to keep the celebrity stock of their family high. In any case, nothing from the release of these emails makes me change my views on David Beckham. There is nothing that one can learn from them which we couldn’t have learned – or guessed – from elsewhere. Certainly nothing to justify the hack.
On Thursday’s Question Time, people discussed whether Beckham’s hankering for a knighthood showed him in a good light or not. All of which is perfectly understandable, because the emails were by then in the public domain. And once again there is almost no consideration once they are out over whether we ought to be reading these emails or not. Perhaps it is inevitable that amid the gossip and guffawing we might forget to ask whether we ought to have known this stuff in the first place. Once the information is in the public domain the papers can’t help but run the story. And then we can’t help but treat ourselves to reading it.
I suppose this goes back to the point I made a few weeks ago about ‘Golden shower gate’, ‘Pig-gate’ and a slew of other stories. The public are more vulnerable than ever at the moment, as are our media. But why have we become so bad at asking the questions behind the distraction? Stealing emails is wrong isn’t it? Isn’t hacking wrong? So why is it ok to do it to famous people? And why do we collude in the results? Are we sure the tittle-tattle is worth it? Personally speaking, every time this happens I grow more and more certain that the price we may end up paying for this endless collusion in data theft will at some stage come back to haunt us.