The strange death of private life

  • Themes: Culture

In the early 1970s, the idea that private life meant a right to be left alone – an idea forged over centuries – began to disappear. We should mourn its absence.

1930s poster for the London Underground.
1930s poster for the London Underground. Credit: Retro AdArchives / Alamy Stock Photo

The furious response to President Lyndon Johnson’s plans for a national databank, unveiled in the autumn of 1965, took the administration by surprise. Civil rights leaders decried the proposals to amalgamate numerous federal databases into one centralised data centre as suspicious. They were already worried they were under surveillance. From church pulpits, sermons thundered against the databank, and the patriotic non-profit Daughters of the American Revolution passed a resolution in stark opposition. In a rare moment of consensus, disparate political factions joined together, with the New York Times solemnly nodding to the spectre of an ‘Orwellian nightmare’.

Congress held prominent hearings on the privacy threats posed by the database and other technological developments. The social critic Vance Packard was the first witness summoned to give evidence before the Special Subcommittee on the Invasion of Privacy. His book The Naked Society had spent a remarkable 23 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and had sounded the alarm on myriad privacy perils, from listening devices concealed within the plastic stomach of children’s dolls to the pervasive use of lie detector tests and terrifyingly large punch-card-powered mainframe computers. ‘There are banks of giant memory machines that conceivably could recall in a few seconds every pertinent action – including failures, embarrassments or possibly incriminating acts – from the lifetime of each citizen,’ he told them. ‘Totalitarian’ and ‘frightening’ is how he described the prospect of Johnson’s centralised database; ‘puny’ the existing body of privacy law.

The Polish-American engineer, Paul Baran, who worked for the Rand Corporation, was also summoned. Whereas Packard had qualified his testimony by saying he didn’t know anything about computers, Baran was a ‘computer man’ – a technology pioneer and one of a team devising a communication network so robust that it could work in the event of a nuclear war. That would feed into the development of the ARPANET and, in time, the internet.

His testimony left the privacy committee confused. Baran swiftly dismissed Johnson’s proposed database as insignificant. He argued that the real issue lay elsewhere. He explained that data was already being hoovered up and, with the development of networked computers, would one day exist in the form of a computer in the sky. That would eclipse any database and make it obsolete. The real threat, he informed them, was the absence of any legal constraints on what kind of data could be collected or by whom. As he put it in an article for the Public Interest: ‘tomorrow’s problem is already here’.

Baran’s insight held the kernel of truth. Long before the internet, or social media, both now blamed for the perilous state of privacy, tomorrow’s problem had already arrived. Not because of data centres or networked computers; the widespread anxiety about privacy in this period masked a more fundamental shift. For deeper reasons that eluded headline writers and policymakers, the nature of privacy was changing, and the private sphere was under threat.

The late 1960s saw a feverish discussion about imperilled privacy on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Is Privacy Dead?’ fretted the cover of Newsweek, revealing the unsettling possibility that bugs could assume the guise of inconspicuous olives, discreetly infiltrating a Martini in a darkly lit bar. The era’s pervasive paranoia about eavesdropping found vivid expression in cinematic form in The Conversation. Gene Hackman’s portrayal of the enigmatic private investigator Harry Caul, who grappled with the treacherous trap of accepting auditory information at face value, revealed the unsettling truth that what you overhear isn’t always as it appears.

In tandem with their American counterparts, the British began to grapple with emerging threats to privacy. ‘No Private Conversation Left in Great Britain That Cannot be Overheard,’ declared a headline in the Sunday Graphic. The London Illustrated News raised the alarm over the disturbing possibility of bugging devices hidden in matchboxes, cigarette filters and even sugar cubes. A fag and a cup of tea, the national drink, would never be the same.

So great was the clamour of concern in Britain that, after Parliament debated a right to privacy thirteen times, on 13 May 1970, the Labour home secretary, James Callaghan, appointed the first official inquiry in Britain into privacy. Sir Kenneth Younger, a former Labour Cabinet minister, was designated chairman.

That such official inquiries are often a way of sidelining a problem belies the significance that the Committee on Privacy was considered necessary at all. Historically, the British character had a reputation for reserve. The ‘British spirit’, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger had observed during a 1950s BBC radio broadcast, was distinguished by ‘a deep reluctance to intrude unnecessarily into a man’s privacy’. Times appeared to have changed.

Paradoxically, at the same time as privacy was the subject of a national debate in the corridors of power, it was enthusiastically relinquished and challenged. Amid the growing fears about Orwellian databases and inanimate objects like olives and sugar lumps eavesdropping on private conversations, citizens in both nations were actively invading their own privacy and vilifying the sanctity of the private sphere.

In 1973, An American Family, a 12-hour documentary series on PBS that chronicled seven months in the lives of the William C. Louds, an upper-middle-class family, aired to massive ratings. It was in effect the first reality TV programme. The producer, Craig Gilbert, chose a family, from the many who volunteered, whose lifestyle was like those portrayed in popular sitcoms such as The Brady Bunch. Gilbert wanted to get underneath the veneer, to reveal the unvarnished truth of the idealised life.

Inevitably, participating in the show subjected the family to significant public scrutiny, as the media rushed in to dissect their shortcomings. ‘Their shopping carts overflow, but their minds are empty’, sneered Newsweek, describing the Louds as ‘affluent zombies’.  The New York Times, in its critique, portrayed Lance, the 20-year-old son, who was the first openly gay person to be depicted in a family context on American television, as a ‘pathetic court jester’, a ‘Goyaesque emotional dwarf’, his homosexuality, ’leech-like.’ It was brutal and unforgiving.

One year after the airing of An American Family, the BBC ran its own 12-part observational series, The Family, credited as Britain’s first fly-on-the-wall documentary. The intention of the producer, Paul Watson, was to make a film about the kind of people who never got on to television. The documentary makers spent two months with the chosen family before filming them for 18 hours a day for three months. They even had their own key to the front door.

This series ‘is going to be a tremendous intrusion into your privacy… We will film everything’, Watson reminded the mother, Margaret Wilkins, in the first episode. Across a blue Formica table, surrounded by her husband and four children, she nodded, replying that they were enthusiastic about that because: ‘It gives us a chance to portray ordinary people, if you like, instead of actors and actresses on the screen… with beautiful kitchens, nothing out of place… no dirty pans… all sparkling – well, people’s kitchens aren’t like that.’ Giving up their privacy would reveal the authentic truth behind glossy appearances. It would be real life.

The making of An American Family and The Family signalled a revolution in the understanding of private life. By taking television cameras deep inside the home, the programme-makers stepped across the historic border between public and private life. The Louds and the Wilkins became famous for who they were, rather than what they had achieved, for their private doings, rather than their public acts.

Far from standing as exceptions, Margaret Wilkins and Pat Loud epitomised a broader societal transformation. This was an age marked by an increasingly confessional demeanour, where consciousness-raising seminars thrived as a testament to the era’s evolving ethos. Keeping the doors to the self and the private sphere was, with a growing consensus, recognised as potentially injurious.

The eminent anthropologist Edmund Leach, while Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, had recently delivered the Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4 on the issue of teenage rebellion. Leach rejected the conventional explanations for student protest about fees: that either the economic problems were at root, or that it was the young themselves needed discipline. Instead, he pointed his finger at the home: ‘Far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.’

What went on behind closed doors and was protected by, in Leach’s words, ‘narrow privacy’ was now seen as problematic. The family was no longer being regarded by as a refuge from insecurity and loneliness, as it had been, or a countervailing authority to the state, and a haven in a heartless world, but as an institution actively harmful to those growing up in it.

Increasingly, as encapsulated in the American feminist Carol Hanish’s 1973 article, ‘The personal is political’, the private sphere was opened up to agitation. Private life, radical feminists believed, was the place where patriarchy and female inequality was born and the site in which it would be dismantled. The distinction between public and private, in the words of feminist theorist Carole Pateman, had to be ‘exploded’ and private life opened for the good of the revolution.

Indeed, that the old type of privacy was coming to be seen as suspicious or dangerous, was born out by the Younger Report, published in July 1972. It achieved little in terms of legislation, which was unsurprising; its significance was that it amounted to an evolution in the concept of privacy.

‘We have conceived of the right of privacy as having two main aspects,’ its opening pages began: ‘The first of these is freedom from intrusion upon oneself, one’s home, family, and relationships. The second is privacy of information, that is the right to determine for oneself how and to what extent information about oneself is communicated to others.’

The Younger Report made a distinction between ‘the right to be let alone’ and a newer sense of it as a right to informational privacy: there was a bifurcation in definition.

Privacy is a protean concept: its meaning changes depending on the historical and cultural context. As a seventeenth-century preacher reminded his flock: ‘The murderer and the adulterer are alike desirous of privacy’ – it is not always considered a social good – but from the late seventeenth to the nineteenth century, privacy had come to be thought of as a necessary space free of interference from religious and state authority and the right to retreat from public scrutiny.

By the nineteenth century, privacy was held up as a sacred value required by the modern self. As two Bostonian lawyers, Samuel Warren and John Brandeis, argued in the most famous article in privacy history, ‘The Right to Privacy’, published in the Harvard Law Review. Warren and Brandeis called for ‘a right to be let alone’, to defend the ‘sacred precincts of private and domestic life’ from the invasion of the public world. ‘The intensity of modern life, attendant upon advancing civilisation’, they lamented, ‘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.’ The Victorian idea of privacy was tied to the private sphere, which was close to being worshipped.

Come the late 1960s and early 1970s, that idea of privacy held rhetorical purchase, such as when, in a national radio address in the spring of 1974, President Nixon (somewhat ironically considering given the Watergate Scandal that would force him to resign in August of that same year), called for new privacy rights: ‘In the first half of this century, Mr Justice Brandeis called privacy “the right most valued by civilised men”… In the last half of this century, we must also make it the right that is most protected.’

As evidenced in the response to Johnson’s proposed database and the anxieties about eavesdropping, something else was being described in this period in the language of privacy. There was a concern with privacy threatened by technology but not the self-invasion of the private sphere or the intrusion into it.

One reason for this development is because of public attitudes. Research commissioned by the Younger Commission discovered a generational divide over the concept of privacy. Those aged 45 and over described privacy as: ‘keeping your own private affairs to yourself’; ‘other people minding their own business’; and ‘freedom from nosy parkers’. The home, for them, was still a castle. They strongly defended the borders of the private sphere. They sounded like Warren and Brandeis.

The generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s was much more likely to define privacy as: ‘leading your life as you want to lead it’; ‘doing what you like at home’; and ‘living as you want to’. There was no mention of a right to be let alone for this cohort. For them, privacy was about self-actualisation rather than a defence against unwelcome intrusion, interference, and scrutiny. They sounded more like Margaret Wilkins.

The old kind of privacy was increasingly seen as a problem. The Younger Committee concluded that excessive privacy was harmful: ‘The result is likely to be loneliness, estrangement from society and the growth of secretiveness and introversion.’

In the end, the 207 pages of their report barely addressed the first part of its definition of privacy – ‘freedom from intrusion upon oneself, one’s home, family and relationships’. The private sphere and the family is hardly mentioned. One of the few references came from the submitted testimony of the British Council of Churches, but this was not to defend it. Instead, it criticised the ‘undue obsession with the personal or family privacy’, because of the harm and abuse it might be concealing.

In the early 1970s, that idea of a private life as a right to be let alone – forged over centuries – evaporated, and concepts of privacy were transformed. Privacy was detached from the private sphere and tied to the individual. This was less the ‘death of privacy’, as Newsweek had warned, than the death of private life and the rise of informational privacy. A preoccupation with ‘informational privacy’ (what would later be called ‘data privacy’), replaced discussions of the virtues of the private sphere more broadly. It also co-existed more comfortably with the more personally expressive and authentic culture of the times, one that was increasingly suspicious of what went on behind closed doors.

As privacy came to be more about autonomy and self-realisation, untethered from the private sphere, the private realm was targeted by activists, with the widespread anxiety about privacy, threatened only by technology, acting as camouflage.


Tiffany Jenkins