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Privacy, Democracy and Freedom of Expression


Must privacy and freedom of expression conflict? To witness recent debates in Britain, you might think so. Anything other than self-regulation by the press is met by howls of anguish from journalists across the political spectrum, to the effect that efforts to protect people’s privacy will threaten press freedom, promote self-censorship and prevent the press from fulfilling its vital function of informing the public and keeping a watchful eye on the activities and antics of the powerful.[Brown, 2009, 13 January]1 Effective protections for privacy, from such a perspective, inevitably pose a threat to democratic government via the constraints that they place on the press. Such concerns with privacy must be taken seriously by anyone who cares about democratic government, and the freedom, equality and wellbeing of individuals. But if it is one thing to say that privacy and freedom of expression cannot always be fully protected, it is another to suppose that protections for the one must always come at the expense of the other. After all, the economics of contemporary politics and journalism would seem to be partly responsible for our difficulties in protecting personal privacy while sustaining robust and informative forms of public discourse. [Moore, 2010, 10 -141]2 Most newspapers are loss-making businesses and the need to reduce those losses and, if possible, to turn a profit, make investigative journalism an increasingly expensive proposition as compared to both “comment” and more or less elevated forms of gossip. At the same time, politics has increasingly become the prerogative of a narrow group of people with access to the large sums of money necessary successfully to compete for high office. In those circumstances, the need for critical scrutiny is as important as it is difficult. Revising our ideas about privacy and its protection cannot alone reduce the tensions between freedom of expression and personal privacy typical of our societies, necessary though such revision may be. Moreover, this paper can only touch on some aspects of the ways in which we need to rethink our interests in privacy, in order adequately to reflect people’s diverse interests in freedom of expression, and the important role of a free press to 1 ; the indifference to privacy by many journalists is noted by Alan Rusbridger in his review of Joshua Rozenberg (2005). see 2 Adam Moore has a helpful – and depressing – discussion of the issue for the USA. Apparently, at the end of 1945 80% of USA newspapers were independently owned. By 1982, 50 corporations owned almost all major media outlets in the USA, including newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, book publishers and movie studios. By 1987, 29 corporations owned them all, and by 1999 they were 9. 2 democratic government. Nonetheless, I hope to suggest ways of thinking about people’s claims to privacy which can be generalised fairly readily, and can help us to think constructively about the nature, causes and solutions to some important social and political problems, even if, in its nature, philosophical analysis rarely tells us what to do.
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hal-02506498 , version 1 (12-03-2020)



Annabelle Lever. Privacy, Democracy and Freedom of Expression. Beate Roessler; Dorota Mokrosinska. Social Dimensions of Privacy, Cambridge University Press, pp.162 - 180, 2015, 9781107280557. ⟨hal-02506498⟩
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