Your right to a private life extends to your email

Barry Collins
21 May 2014

This may cost me some friends and a place on Germaine Greer’s Christmas Card list, but I have some sympathy for Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive who’s been castigated for sending sexist emails.

A friend of mine is a largish cheese at a well-known broadcasting company. Recently, we were arranging a curry night with some pals over email, exchanging the normal “banter” that passes between a group of friends who’ve known each other for years, when said broadcasting exec suddenly felt the need to inform us that – like Scudamore – his PA had access to his inbox.

There was nothing particularly off-colour in the email exchanges, certainly nothing comparable to the comments that have had Scudamore dusting down his CV this week, but the tone of the conversation changed immediately. Dialogue that would be utterly harmless between friends who’ve known each other since university, who know each other’s sense of humour and when someone is being ironic, was suddenly unacceptable when his PA was potentially reading the exchanges, too.

The alternative is living a nightmarish Orwellian state, where no conversation is private and every utterance is sanctionable

My work email has never (to the best of my knowledge) been privy to someone else’s eyes. But I can say with absolute conviction that – read in isolation and stripped of context – some of the emails I’ve sent and received from friends and colleagues could be regarded as offensive, sexist and potentially even racist. I trust my correspondents know that I am (with the regular exception of offensive) none of those, but if those isolated emails were suddenly produced in court or at a disciplinary hearing, I’d need a hell of a lawyer to prove otherwise.

Email, to my mind, comes with an implicit expectation of privacy. Yes, Scudamore was foolish not to moderate his language in the knowledge that his PA had access to his inbox, and he was perhaps even more foolish to hold those views in the first place – although, stripped of context, I’m as reluctant to pass any moral judgement on Scudamore as I would be for someone to pore over the contents of my inbox.

I find it richly ironic that in the same week the EU affirmed our right to be “forgotten” on the internet, the general consensus is that someone’s private email exchanges are considered fair game.

Article 8 of the Human Rights Act states that there should be “respect for privacy when one has a reasonable expectation of privacy”. I’d argue that Scudamore had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in his correspondence with friends and colleagues, and that no matter how offensive his comments were, he shouldn’t lose his job over them.

The alternative is living in a nightmarish Orwellian state, where no conversation is private and every utterance is sanctionable. And that’s a lot worse than having a man who compares women to double-decker buses running football.

Read more about: