In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: We need a more sophisticated approach to what is privacy

I USED to think I had intelligent friends, but that was before social media.

At present, my Facebook page is cluttered with a video of a toddler laughing at a puppy chasing soap bubbles, an announcement that someone just played two word games, a warning of a new moon in Capricorn, and a picture of a dog’s arse in which someone can see a likeness of Jesus.

I look at my Facebook page less than once a month and dread that anyone believes its content is down to me.

However, my incontinent contributors appear geniuses compared to those on the Channel 4 programme broadcast last week, Don’t Blame Facebook.

They ranged from ‘idiots’ showing themselves street-racing at 120mph on YouTube to a shop worker posing in store in rather unattractive postures.

All deserved the critical attention they attracted and none apparently tried to stop the programme.

But then it can be hard to ‘put the genie back in the bottle’ once something is posted on the internet.

A couple of years ago, the Press Complaints Commission ruled in favour of Loaded magazine and against a girl who had uploaded photographs of her well-endowed upper torso to her Bebo site when she was only 15. The pictures spread across the internet.

Loaded published them under the headline, ‘Wanted! The epic boobs girl!’, offering a £500 reward for anyone persuading her to do a photo shoot. The PCC recognised the “questionable tastefulness” but said it had to have regard to “the extent to which material is already in the public domain”.

A few years ago, I spoke at a Law Society conference with an officer from the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency. He explained how children of police officers were told not to post pictures of daddy washing the car outside the house. Such innocent pictures could tell criminals the officer’s address and car registration.

Of course, last week we had the case of a successful case preventing use of a pic from the web: the husband of actress, Kate Winslett – a Ned Rocknroll (he changed his name from Abel Smith) – went to court to prevent The Sun printing photographs of him taken at a party, which then appeared on a friend’s Facebook page.

In a statement, the couple last week said the pictures were “innocent but embarrassing” and “we refuse to accept that her career means our family can’t live a relatively normal life”.

However, beneath the froth of embarrassing friends, thoughtless thrill-seekers and upset celebrities is an issue that should not left to be decided by companies like Facebook, YouTube or even News International.

Nor should it be restricted to those with the resources to gain access to our courts. We need more awareness of what is properly private.

The UK’s Media and Parliament should take a more sophisticated approach to privacy, that enables naïve 15 year-old girls to reclaim their privacy just as easily as if there were a celebrity spouse going to the courts.

Germany has what it calls a ‘law of forgetting’, allowing those temporarily in the public eye to retreat back into private life.

Further to last week’s blog on the Leveson aftermath, the Industry Implementation Group on Thursday reported: “The industry continues to make solid progress in establishing a tough, independent regulator that will protect the public and that is also compliant with Lord Justice Leveson’s principles.”

In other words, to paraphrase William McGonagall: “Down the electric wires the message came, they’re no nearer agreeing, they are much the same.”

Francis Shennan is director of and Visiting Lecturer in journalism and law at Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde Universities.