When Oxford City Council announced last week that all taxis and cabs in the city must have CCTV cameras recording both sight and sound on all journeys, there was an outcry from organisations such as Big Brother Watch. Peter Allen, the Drive programme presenter on BBC 5 Live, joked: “Of course, some people believe that’s already happening, with a big camera in the sky - those of a religious disposition.” Meanwhile in the States a case currently before the Supreme Court could open the way to the police tracking the movements of mobile phone users without a warrant. The government lawyers’ argument is that the defendant, whose car was bugged with a GPS tracking device, does not have “a legitimate expectation of privacy”. In this case the American Civil Liberties Union is sounding warning bells.
As Spooks’ fans will be aware, software for tracking mobile phones already exists and is highly sophisticated. As tabloid haters will be all too aware, the software for hacking into phones and computers is advanced and often, it seems, employed. The Leveson Inquiry is beginning its quest to uncover the extent of the abuse. The tipping-point of the News of the World scandal came with the revelation that murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked. That seemed to be in a different category from ‘celebrities’ and politicians who themselves court the media for publicity. The Dowlers and the McCanns, appearing before Lord Leveson, came across as ordinary folk whose private grief was gratuitously invaded and trampled on by journalists who had abandoned human decency and lost the gift of empathy in pursuit of ‘the story’.
What is a legitimate expectation of privacy? How private should our lives be? In Scripture it is true that nothing is hidden from God, as the old prayer has it, “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open and from whom no secrets are hid”. In that sense, Peter Allen is right. As Jesus warns: “Nothing is hidden except to be made manifest” (Mark 4.22). But this is far from being a snooping God. If I may put it that way, He has better things to do with time. He is into redeeming it. His ultimate judgement is to raise our sights now. He’s the Jesus who knew all people and what was in humankind (John 2:24-5).
The fact of God’s omniscience does not give us the right to know everything about each other. That’s His prerogative. It’s not something we could handle. In fact our overriding duty to each other is that of love, and in the Christian community “love covers a multitude of sins” - which seems to mean that where love abounds, offences are frequently overlooked and quickly forgotten (ESV Study Bible). Frequently, but not always. Sadly the Church has too often employed cover-ups rather than being transparent and repentant - which fools no-one and undermines its prophetic integrity. Often it’s secular media which have blown the Church’s cover.
Privacy deserves protection. Intrusion into private life and conversations can rarely be justified. Yet a responsible free press is a blessing, without doubt. Perhaps it should be guided by this motto: “Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”
Michael Wenham is a writer, blogger and a retired vicar