When will people realize that phones aren't private?

When will people realize that phones aren't private?

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.


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.

Of course, there is nothing new about adultery, least of all on the part of politicians. What's new is electronic gadgetry, which has been both a blessing and a curse. It seems remarkably difficult for people to grasp that cell phones and e-mail simply aren't secure. The Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles (now an honest woman as the Duchess of Cornwall) were taught that in painful fashion when their improbable exchanges were intercepted and published.

More recently, the odious Andy Coulson was fired as editor of the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch's subhuman scandal sheet, when it transpired that he had been using a disreputable private eye to tap telephone calls by other royals. Coulson was forthwith hired by Cameron as director of communications for the Conservative Party, which says something about the age in which we live.


In what still like to call themselves free countries, we assume that the mail is private. At least until the Patriot Act is beefed up, there will, one trusts, be no American equivalent of the scene in the film The Lives of Others, when East Germany's Stasi work a machine to open everyone's letters and then reseal them (after identifying rotten elements for socialist re-education in a labor camp). But we didn't use to assume that about disembodied conversation.

For many years after the telephone was invented, even local calls went through an operator—hence Fats Waller's "Hello, Central, Give Me Doctor Jazz"—later, long-distance calls still did, hence Chuck Berry's "Los Angeles? Give me Norfolk, Virginia." Although parts of TV series Mad Menmay be something of a caricature, the depiction of the switchboard girls at the ad agency is authentic enough, as they sit answering, routing, and—if they want—eavesdropping on calls.

And so our grandparents rarely uttered intimacies on the telephone, and never dark secrets, since it could be supposed that someone was listening. Now people have grown much more careless, even after endless evidence that we are all being overheard, at any rate if someone, somewhere has the energy.

It's all very sad, especially for Lee and Karen and Kwame and Christine. But perhaps we should have the decency to accept their denials of impropriety. Everyone uses slang and private language, and maybe "Did you miss me sexually?" was a way of saying, "Have you read those position papers about the downtown traffic problem?" Or Jasper's message could (dyslexia apart) be taken at face value, so that "honey glase" merely reveals an ardent shared interest in cooking.

Still, I would remind Jasper of what Jimmy Buchanan, Lord Woolavington, the Scotch whisky millionaire, used to say. He had been sustained through life by simple precepts: "Do right, and fear no man. Don't write, and fear no woman."