When I saw the picture of Lord Sewel wearing a jewelled bra on the front page of the Sun, my instinctive reaction wasn’t disgust, or shock, or anger. Instead, I wanted to check the calendar. Is it really 2015? Do powerful men really think that the most transgressive thing they can do is to put on women’s underwear?
The whole scenario felt unbearably clichéd, from his lordship’s excruciating small talk – recounting a recent work trip to the Isle of Man, complete with lunch on a steam train – to the casual racism of his characterisation of Asian women as secret “whores”. He even paid for one of the encounters by cheque. By cheque! What is he, American?
If the “scandal” was fairly retro, however, the reaction felt quite new. I’ve yet to find anyone who is genuinely scandalised by the Sewel affair – if anything, the mood is more one of grim resignation: “That’s what they all get up to, isn’t it? Spending taxpayers’ money on drugs and sex?” There has also been little concern over the publication of the video. Given that the peer was caught moaning about how hard it is to live on parliamentary cash while spending £400 on sex workers in a subsidised flat, the public interest in the story was clear.
But no, what feels new is the sympathy for Lord Sewel. When the Sunday Times columnist India Knight tweeted about the bra picture, she said that the replies largely consisted of: “Silly old git, hope he’s OK.” The harshest blow that Dominic Lawson landed on the 69-year-old peer in the Daily Mail was a comparison with Steve Coogan.
Can it be that our enjoyment of public humiliation for sexual transgressions is on the wane? After all, it’s harder to enjoy the voyeuristic thrill of such situations when we know that thousands of ordinary people – not celebrities or public servants – get caught in similar circumstances.
On 17 July, Nick Denton of Gawker, an American website well known for its tabloid sensibilities, ordered his site to take down a post that allegedly outed a married media executive for soliciting sex with a male escort. Denton’s actions prompted the resignation of two editors for interfering with their editorial independence but he claimed that he could no longer defend his creation’s cavalier attitude to privacy. “My sense is that glee at information that spills out on the internet has given way to a greater concern for personal privacy,” he told the New York Times. “More and more people have public lives on social media. And nobody wants to live in a world in which it’s so easy for your smartphone texts to spill on to the web – and so easy for media to justify spreading the embarrassment.”
In July, the adultery dating website Ashley Madison was hacked, threatening the release of millions of users’ private data – which would presumably have alerted their spouses to their extramarital activities. When hackers accessed naked photographs of celebrities stored on Apple’s iCloud service, hundreds of barely known actresses and models were affected, as well as A-listers such as Jennifer Lawrence. Prosecutions for revenge porn have soared in Britain since the Crown Prosecution Service clarified the law, with 139 allegations recorded by police in the six months to April this year. The age of victims ranged from 11 to over 65. Thirteen people were cautioned or charged.
And it’s not just sexual misadventures that are used against ordinary citizens. Any form of private data can be weaponised: your credit card can be cloned, your address published on hate group websites, your picture Photoshopped on to porn and circulated to your Facebook friends. Forums on sites such as 4chan and Reddit regularly try to “doxx” – or uncover and publish the private details of – targets who stray into their cross hairs, whether by voicing outspoken feminist views or becoming caught up in a news event. Barely a month goes by without a major company admitting that its security systems have been compromised. In November 2014, Sony executives had their emails splashed across the internet, including their Amazon wishlist requests for pubic hair dye and their unfiltered thoughts on Angelina Jolie’s acting abilities. Earlier this year, the computer network for the Office of Personnel Management, which stores personal information for US federal employees so they can be given background checks, was breached.
This digital panopticon is rarely questioned because it is mostly incredibly useful. It’s helpful that Amazon remembers who I am, that Google syncs data between my phone calendar and my work computer, that I have a backup of all my holiday photos in case I spill boiling oil on to my laptop (although a cup of tea is more likely). Most of us feel that we are too insignificant, too protected by the anonymity of the online herd, to have to worry about our personal information being compromised.
Yet with every hack and leak and scandal, that blind trust is being eroded. Gradually, it’s becoming clear that it’s not only celebrities and politicians who should worry. Thirty years ago, if someone wanted to photograph you in a compromising position, they’d have struggled to hide a Nikon SLR in their lace thong. Now, almost everyone carries a video recorder, microphone and high-resolution camera with them at all times and it’s completely normal to leave such a device out on the bedside table.
So no wonder that the prurient thrill of seeing someone else’s private life exposed is being replaced with a muttered “there by the grace of God”. Admittedly, most of us won’t be wearing a bra and paying sex workers £200 each for a cocaine-fuelled orgy (OK, I do admit to doing the former) but very few of us would like to have every intemperate email and every late-night web search made public. Watching the mighty get put in the pillory isn’t so fun when we know that any one of us might be next.