The death of privacy: j'accuse!

Public people can no longer have private lives. John Lloydargues that Monica, Diana, the feminists a

Two young women have, at the end of the century, become both the symbols of and fuel for a movement of great power: the attempt to end the idea that public people have a right to a private life. Monica Lewinsky and the late Diana, Princess of Wales have lent themselves to a movement that takes a significant part of its energy from feminism but most benefits media corporations.

Lewinsky, whose story is told in television interviews this week and whose biography by Andrew Morton (also Diana's biographer) is newly published, is world-famous for performing fellatio on the US president a dozen times and then collaborating with him in an effort to conceal it. A vast edifice of political manoeuvring, legal initiatives, ethical debate, media revelation and public comment is based on nothing more than that.

Will private life for public people ever be possible again? It seems unlikely. The invasion of private life is now so powerful, so closely linked with such large vested interests and so deeply embedded in our public styles, that it looks impossible to stop. Public figures, who have most cause to try and do so, are automatically suspected of having something to hide.

That suspicion is normally warranted. We all have something to hide. Emotions, relationships, personal failures and successes should be hidden from general gaze if they are to retain any kind of integrity. The question that seems rarely asked by the media, the pressure groups, the commercial interests and the public itself - all of whom at times contribute to the destruction of privacy - is this: how much of a person's private life do we really need to know in order to ensure public accountability?

The media are, collectively, the largest destroyers, mainly for commercial reasons. At some point in the 1970s, the British tabloids decided that they would actively seek revelations of the sexual affairs of public men and women. Lacking the constitutional protection of the US media and thus the sense of high seriousness with which the US media adorn themselves, they engaged in little debate about the rightness of doing so. Only the royal family was at first accorded something of an exclusion order - but with the marriage of Diana Spencer to the heir to the throne, that not only ended but also reversed itself so that the family became the prime hunting space. The tabloids made lachrymose pledges that they would leave Diana's children alone after her death. But they have constantly violated these promises and will do so further as the princes become sexually active.

The real reason for exposing the sex lives of public people is that most of us get vicarious pleasure from seeing, or assuming, their shame and embarrassment. Public punishment or display or execration is no longer possible in most places in the advanced countries; the delight in participating in such events is now, like much entertainment, private. But the tabloids have adopted a public-interest defence based on the thesis that if a public figure cheats in marriage he will also sell his electors short. The defence is most explicit in the Daily Mail. Its editor, Paul Dacre, is not, like many of his colleagues, a cynic; he truly believes that political and public probity can be read off sexual and familial fidelity.

This is an immensely reductive view, which has no support from recent history. Yet the connection between private and public turpitude is simply asserted. And having been asserted, it thus opens every bedroom to invasion in the name of better, more moral government.

It is complemented, especially on TV news and current affairs, by a received wisdom that only by personalising a story can it be given meaning for a mass audience. Thus a story about public spending must find someone in pain on a hospital waiting list; a story on racism must show a black teenager who has been the innocent butt of police harrassment. The story must be felt as well as understood. Yet the hazard of such stories is that the feeling swamps the understanding. Liberals have embraced this technique and so largely defeated John Birt's ambition to end the "bias against understanding" and to explain the context of the disparate happenings known as "stories". Even as Birt was rising to the top of the BBC, the cultural movement towards "feeling" the news was proving too strong for his efforts to have it understood.

The revelations that guests on some daytime chat shows are "phoney" are merely another side to the same movement. An individual who pretends to be a road-rage driver or an abusive husband or a racist simply makes a rational, market response to a demand. When someone is presented as an abusive husband, one part of his personality is frozen for public show; the "real" abusive husband is only a little more real than the phoney one is. The demand that complex behaviour be simplified so that it can be judged leads to an entirely reasonable conclusion that it is better performed by an actor than by a "real" person.

The British media (more than others in the rich world) have created a special mess of all this. Ministers have a reasonable case that policy is inadequately explored in large sections of the media. But that is so bound up with their self-serving attempt to grab space to speak unchallenged that the media can easily splutter that "they would say that, wouldn't they". The result is that ministers end up on glutinous breakfast shows or in meetings with regional journalists whose job is not to cover national, but regional issues and who thus are bound to be less well briefed and less challenging.

Alongside the tabloids, the other powerful destroyer of private life has been feminism, in alliance with the spirit of '68. Paris-based groups like the situationists asserted that the "personal was political", and popularised the notion that the constipated personalities of men such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were responsible for bombing in Vietnam.

Feminism, a longer-lasting and more serious movement, deepened that analysis. The feminist scholar Juliet Mitchell wrote that feminism should demonstrate to women that "what they thought was an individual dilemma [was] a social predicament and hence a political problem". The American commentator Ellen Goodman said that, from the adultery of Gary Hart (a former presidential candidate), "you learn about his capacity for deception . . . learn about impulsiveness, self-control, even the ability to compartmentalise ethics".

These examples are quoted in an essay by Peter Beinart in the American journal New Republic. The feminist movement, he comments, had in many of its leading members' mouths or pens "degraded politics by turning it into a synonym for life".

In her latest book, published this week, Germaine Greer, the most prominent of British-based feminists, argues that "it's time to get angry again". Women should regard men as the main, if not the sole, oppressor, and concentrate on personal feeling (anger) rather than supporting what she calls pejoratively "the rhetoric of equality". Greer herself has resorted to the personal, as when she famously described the commentator Suzanne Moore - who incorrectly repeated a piece of gossip that Greer had had a hysterectomy - as having "fuck-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage". She has added her own large reputation to the belief that polemic and argument should use the personal rather than the rational.

Sections of the gay movement, to some extent a comrade-in-arms with the women's movement, have insisted that homosexual men in public life should declare their orientation or be branded as, at best, hypocrites. This "outing" is firmly based on the same ethical platform as that of the tabloids - that private behaviour determines public conduct.

The other rationale the media have advanced for seeking to destroy private life is that politicians beat them to it; that they use their families, and images of themselves as happily married husbands and wives, in election campaigns. This is much less true in the UK than in the US. But some Tory ministers were gross in their abuse of family: John Selwyn Gummer had his daughter eat a hamburger for television during a BSE scare, while David Mellor turned out with his family for the tabloids when his job was endangered by an affair.

Labour has not done anything as bad. Yet Tony Blair once spoke of submitting polices to the "Ewan test", implying that his eldest son's preferences had a kind of veto over policy, while Gordon Brown's former press adviser, Charlie Whelan, arranged photo-opportunities of the Chancellor with his girlfriend before each of his two Budgets.

But the greatest assassin of private life was Diana, who became an icon for many feminists, even leftist ones such as Bea Campbell and Julie Burchill. More than any other prominent female figure, she demanded that her private life took precedence over the business of the family into which she married. She saw herself, increasingly, in mythic terms - and a myth is public property, and can have no private life. In her last interview, to the French daily Le Monde, she said that she saw her life as one of service, and added that "whoever needs me only has to call, and I will come running, wherever they are". This claim, carved on the pavilion opposite her island grave in Althorp, is self-evidently absurd except for a goddess, which seems to be what Diana thought she was.

As Macbeth murdered sleep, so Diana murdered private life - most of all her own. Her death in 1997, coming as it did in the course of a media pack hunt, was a suicide, a self-induced culmination to an existence that oscillated between victimhood and manipulation and in which huge mythic themes, such as the nature of royalty, divine intervention and universal love, were mixed in with sexual infidelity, fashion statements and saving the world.

Diana's extraordinary success fused media invasiveness with the feminist agenda in a satisfyingly apocalyptic way. It may be that we are now retreating from that apotheosis, shuffling back in embarrassment to a recognition that private life, our own and others, has its call upon our time and attention. But do not underestimate the very large commercial interests that prefer its continued destruction.