When will people realize that phones aren't private?

The British scene.
March 7 2008 4:00 PM

Careless E-Mail

In London and Detroit, politicians are reminded that phones are not as private as they imagined.

Lee Jasper. Click image to expand.
Lee Jasper 

Although London and Detroit are a long way apart, temperamentally as well as geographically, our capital city and Motown have had something in common this week. They have both just illustrated one of the hazards of modern life: the fact that electronic communication is not as private as we might like to think. That and another danger that is much older: Be very careful what you write, and to whom.

Two public figures who have been reminded of this the hard way are Lee Jasper, who resigned on Monday as senior adviser to Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London facing re-election in May, and Kwame M. Kilpatrick, who is still mayor of Detroit, just about. It had been alleged that Kilpatrick and Christine Beatty, his chief of staff, were engaged in an extramarital, not to say extra-political, relationship, but they denied this, on oath and in court, insisting that there was no impropriety whatever in their acquaintanceship.

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Then the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, after a lengthy legal tussle, printed text messages between these two colleagues. They include much playful banter, plenty of "LOLs," and allusions to hotel room numbers. In one missive, Beatty asked her boss, "And, did you miss me sexually?" to which he replied, "Hell yeah! You couldn't tell. I want some more. Don't sleep!"

Something of the kind happened to Jasper. The lady in this case is Karen Chouhan, financial officer of a charitable trust and director of the Black Londoners Forum. She had insisted that while there was a "very close bond" between them, there was no sexual relationship: "I am a happily married woman." Then the London Evening Standard published e-mails from Jasper to Chouhan.

In one he wrote, "I want to wisk you away to a deserted island beach, honey glase you, let you cook before a torrid and passionate embrace." Stuffier elements here have thought that Jasper should have been fired for his spelling rather than his lechery, although Jeff Randall in the Daily Telegraph quoted one more billet-doux from Jasper to Chouhan—"How many ways do I love thee? As the air I breathe and first gentle dew on a golden summer morn"—and more helpfully suggested that "he can resurrect his career, writing for Mills & Boon," the famed publishers of swoony romantic fiction.

In his exquisite essay "How Shall I Word It?" Max Beerbohm gave useful advice on writing less than genial letters. One of them is a "Letter From a Poor Man to Obtain Money From Rich One," in which the writer says that by chance he has come across "a letter written by yourself to a lady ... shortly after your marriage. It is of a confidential nature, and might, I fear, if it fell into the wrong hands, be cruelly misconstrued" (and so he proposes that they should meet at 3 a.m. on Waterloo Bridge to effect a transaction).

Alas, just as there were then, there are still today nasty people of a suspicious nature who, on reading those notes from Christine to Kwame or from Lee to Karen, have indeed cruelly misconstrued them. Needless to add, no one wants to say it's "about sex." There are surely higher issues than that at stake, the foes of Kilpatrick and Jasper say. Just as we were told 10 years ago, not always very convincingly, that what mattered wasn't Bill Clinton's curious amorous adventures but his mendacity, so now the real question in Detroit is said to be the mayor's attempt to silence a troublesome whistle-blowing police officer.

In London, likewise, Jasper has been accused of handing public money to groups with which he had private connections. That's what David Cameron, the Conservative leader of the opposition, meant when he said that Jasper's conduct had been "completely unacceptable." Cameron can scarcely hold up his friend Boris Johnson, the Tory candidate against Livingstone, as the standard-bearer of sexual purity, but money is another matter.

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