TOPIC GUIDE: Private Lives
"The media should be prevented by law from intruding into the private lives of public figures"
PUBLISHED: 01 Aug 2008
AUTHOR: Helen Birtwistle
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The intrigues and misdemeanours of celebrities and other public figures are rarely out of the headlines. Whether featuring stories of Liberal democrat MP Mark Oaten’s rent-boy scandal [Ref: BBC News] or Kate Middleton’s on-off relationship with Prince William [Ref: Times Online], juicy details about the private lives of public figures sell papers. But since the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when paparazzi were accused of chasing the Princess to her death [Ref: Daily Mail], the media have been widely criticised for aggressively intruding into the private lives of individuals in pursuit of a top scoop [Ref: American Journalism Review]. The recent High Court victory of Formula 1 boss Max Mosley against the News of the World for violation of privacy has again brought the question of privacy versus free expression to the fore [Ref: BBC News]. Whilst some argue that reporting on the private lives of public figures is the entitlement of a free press, others suggest that the media have overstepped the mark and need to be reined in.
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
A need for privacy?
Privacy has long been regarded as a need and right in a democracy [Ref: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. In his seminal essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill emphasised the importance of a private sphere that is protected against incursions by the state and the interference of others. But more recently commentators have argued that privacy is also under attack from other quarters. Citing examples of the paparazzi news mob [Ref: YouTube], critics argue that people now need protecting from a media that poses a significant threat to privacy and personal autonomy [Guardian]. Whilst many argue that celebrities who use the media to further their careers are fair game, some draw a distinction between the media’s interest in celebrities on the one hand and ‘serious’ public figures, such as politicians, whose private lives should be off limits. But others suggest that times have changed. Politicians are increasingly using the tactics of celebrities, revealing details of their private lives for public relations purposes. Defenders of the media continue that the media remains the ‘public watchdog’ of democracy. Laws concerning privacy were never intended to protect citizens from the media. Scrutinizing the private lives of public figures is an important and necessary part of holding powerful figures to account.
Free expression vs. privacy?
Both sides in the privacy debate recognise the role that free expression plays in a democratic, free society. Facilitating a free flow of information and ideas and holding public figures to account, the media helps to create and sustain that democratic culture. However, in recent years concerns about protection of individual privacy have complicated the media’s commitment to free speech, expressed in the old adage ‘publish and be damned!’ [Ref: Guardian] The Human Rights Act, which came into force in 2000, incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law [Ref: Office of Public Sector Information]. It contains both a right to privacy (article 8) and a right to free expression (article 10) and has introduced the idea that these rights need to be balanced against one another. Whilst some commentators have argued that this ‘privacy law by the back door’ will have a detrimental impact on investigative journalism [Ref: Telegraph], others suggest that this balancing will help to create a more responsible media committed to the idea of the ‘public interest’.
Is what interests the public in the public interest?
Both the professional principles drawn up by both the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) [Ref: NUJ] and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) [Ref: PCC] emphasise that journalists should not intrude into the private lives of their subjects. However, both codes also contain ‘public interest’ clauses that can justify the publication of sensitive material. Increasingly the caveat of ‘public interest’ has been the deciding factor in whether the balance is tipped in favour of free expression or privacy. But whereas the decision as to what can reasonably be called ‘public interest’ was once in the hands of editors, the courts are increasingly being called upon to adjudicate. Critics argue that statutory regulation is anathema to a properly functioning democracy and insist that it is up to editors and the people to decide what is or isn’t in the public interest, not judges [Ref: British Journalism Review]. But others reply that intrusions into privacy are undermining serious investigative journalism and that the ‘public interest’ will be better served if there are legal curbs on the unethical practices of the red tops.
A crisis in media standards?
There is widespread concern in modern society about both the state of privacy and the quality of public discourse. But whilst many would agree that the media plays a role in determining the quality of public discussion, politicians as much as the media hold some responsibility for the degradation of public debate. The question is how to respond to this problem. Whilst some argue that a high level public debate is what is needed, with more free speech not less, others suggest that the only way to guarantee improved standards in journalism and counter the ills of a ‘bare all‘ culture is for tighter controls and independent adjudication.
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Barbara Hewson spiked 28 July 2008
Nicholas Jones Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom 5 February 2008
Alex Wade The Times 12 January 2007
Polly Toynbee Guardian 24 July 2002
David Aaronovitch Independent 11 April 2001
Tessa Mayes spiked 28 July 2008
Joshua Rozenburg Daily Telegraph 24 July 2008
Dan Sabbagh The Times 9 March 2007
Simon Jenkins Guardian 12 January 2007
Christopher Meyer British Journalism Review, Vol 17 (3) 2006
Information Commissioners Office 13 December 2006
Roy Greenslade MediaWise inaugral lecture 22 January 2004
Tessa Mayes Spiked Report 22 October 2002
Barbara Hewson spiked 10 May 2002
Michael Kingsley and Thomas Nagel Slate Magazine 23 September 1998
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Charlie Beckett Director’s Blog Polis Journalism and Society 27 June 2008
Daily Press.com 2008
Mike Jempson Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom 9 February 2007
Judith DeCew Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy 18 September 2006
Bill Hagerty British Journalism Review, Vol 14, No.1 2003
BBC et al March 2002
Press Complaints Commission
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Guardian 19 August 2008
Reuters 8 August 2008
Evening Standard 27 July 2008
Guardian 23 July 2008
Press Gazette 26 June 2008
The First Post 30 May 2008
Guardian 7 April 2008
Guardian 12 February 2008
BBC News 31 January 2008
Guardian 9 January 2008
Press Gazette 23 November 2007
Guardian 5 July 2007
Guardian 7 May 2007
Independent 6 May 2007
Daily Telegraph 17 April 2007
BBC News 29 November 2006
Guardian 18 May 2006
BBC News 21 January 2006
BBC News 18 February 2004
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