Saturday, 23 March 2013

The War on Gossip renewed

Should the Crime and Courts Bill become law in its Levesonised form, it will have the dubious distinction of being the first UK statute in which the word ‘gossip’ appears.  As such, it can perhaps be seen as a new phase in the War on Gossip commenced by Warren and Brandeis in their seminal article “The Right to Privacy”, published in the Harvard Law Review in December 1890.

Most of the article consists of a measured and closely reasoned articulation of a right of privacy from the perspective of the individual.  But it opens with a tirade against the press which contains a more than passing swipe at modern civilisation in general.  While focusing to a degree on the victim, this also displays a positively Reithian mission to elevate the morals of the uneducated classes and save them from the evils of gossip. 
The passage speaks for itself (paragraph breaks inserted):
“Gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious, but has become a trade, which is pursued with industry as well as effrontery. To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers. To occupy the indolent, column upon column is filled with idle gossip, which can only be procured by intrusion upon the domestic circle.
The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.
Nor is the harm wrought by such invasions confined to the suffering of those who may be the subjects of journalistic or other enterprise. In this, as in other branches of commerce, the supply creates the demand. Each crop of unseemly gossip, thus harvested, becomes the seed of more, and, in direct proportion to its circulation, results in the lowering of social standards and of morality.
Even gossip apparently harmless, when widely and persistently circulated, is potent for evil. It both belittles and perverts. It belittles by inverting the relative importance of things, thus dwarfing the thoughts and aspirations of a people. When personal gossip attains the dignity of print, and crowds the space available for matters of real interest to the community, what wonder that the ignorant and thoughtless mistake its relative importance.
Easy of comprehension, appealing to that weak side of human nature which is never wholly cast down by the misfortunes and frailties of our neighbors, no one can be surprised that it usurps the place of interest in brains capable of other things. Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling. No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse can survive under its blighting influence.”
So the great unwashed have to be rescued from their addiction to gossip.  Whether or not one regards that as paternalistic tripe, who could have predicted that the UK Crime and Courts Bill 2013 would be the vehicle that finally gives statutory force to the War on Gossip?

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