Some time ago, at a party, I found myself coerced into donning a silly wig. Ordinarily I’d stand on my dignity but, for whatever reason, on this occasion I didn’t and almost immediately became aware of about a dozen people swarming in with their mobile phones poised to capture me looking foolish. We are all familiar with the proliferation of CCTV and the notion that Big Brother is watching us. But for normal, law abiding citizens the problem isn’t actually Big Brother; it is all his runty little siblings.
I thought of that event the other day amid the row over the naked images of Prince Harry, captured not by some long-lensed paparazzo, but by a grinning bystander with a mobile phone. The parallels between us will be obvious to you, although I am always careful to confiscate all mobile phones before playing strip-billiards in Vegas. You can’t be too careful. It is only the fact that I was not naked, drunk or third in line to the throne that spared me the same fate as Harry.
I am not without fame; only this holiday I was selected as guest of the day at Disneyland’s car park, securing free parking and a priority shuttle bus at the end of the visit. Free parking! It really is the happiest place on earth. (You may mock this honour, but tune into Celebrity Big Brother some time; people are building TV careers out of less.) Unlike Harry, it seems, I knew what would happen but, for a journalist, it was a sobering moment to catch a glimpse of what life is like for those who have cameras pointed at them every day, ready to catch them getting angry, being silly or – the highest crime – not wearing make-up.
Fifteen years ago, Princess Diana was driven to her death as she tried to evade photographers. Now, there would be no escape; the amateur paps would have been at every turn, inside and outside the hotel. As she lay dying, we know that at least one photographer kept taking pictures so that possibly the last thing she saw was a flashbulb exploding in her face. But for years the snaps went unpublished as news organisations wisely held back. Today, those images would be on a hundred phones, and on the web, in moments.
Everyone you meet is a cameraman now, ready to catch you should you fall. This is no revelation, perhaps, but we appear almost to have institutionalised an infinite level of intrusion. At least princes and celebrities know they are a target. Most of us would never consider the risk in our ordinary lives. Who cares about us? But consider some of the biggest viral videos on YouTube. How often are they of some ordinary citizen captured doing something foolish? Sometimes they deserve the exposure. If the mobile phone and YouTube phenomenon can inhibit racist loudmouths on trains, and other antisocial behaviour, all well and good. But often it is just something embarrassing, such as the poor chap who lost control of his dog in Richmond deer park. At least in his case we can only identify the dog; others are less fortunate. A recent mortifying clip showed a teenage girl being ordered from a train after an exceptionally lewd and loud phone call with her boyfriend. The girl, 15, was clearly identifiable and has since been named in the media. She undoubtedly merited ejection from the carriage but did she actually deserve the internet equivalent of The Scarlet Letter? A brief trawl of YouTube includes other gems such as “Drunk man falls down stairs” and “Black lady goes crazy at Seaworld … lol”. A teenager has taped the noises her mum makes during sex; another clip shows a man filmed naked through his third-floor apartment window. There is no self-censoring, no consideration for the victim. It’s lols all the way.
This is the world we now occupy, indoors or out. It is a world in which people will lose their friends, their dignity and maybe even their job. The only safe bet is to assume your entire life is on the record and that there are no sanctuaries, even if you think you are in private. Don’t make a mistake; don’t fall over, misspeak, get drunk, angry or naked, even in your own home. Oh and never, ever, let your dog off its leash. Today, the camera is always there and it is always candid.