How can we balance the Right to Information against the Right to Privacy?

When asked to balance one’s right to privacy against the public’s right to information, we are not asking ‘how important this information might be to the public good, and what depth of information is essential for them to know’ but rather ‘how much are we able to get away with and will it sell?’ Thus is the moral landscape of modern media. The debate which, if held within the context of an ideal, and wholly moral society would be an easy to settle.  In fact there already exists standard codes of practice which outline exactly what should be considered instances where privacy can be violated in the ‘public interest’ thus making a clear distinction between what is ethically acceptable, and what is not.   According to the NUJ instances where a violation of privacy might be ethically sound include:

a) Detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour;

b) Protecting public Health and Safety;

c) Preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or        organisation;

d) Exposing misuse of public funds or other forms of corruption by public bodies;

e) Revealing potential conflicts of interest by those in positions of power and influence;

f) Exposing corporate greed;

g) Exposing hypocritical behaviour by those holding high office.[1]

But these are not strictly adhered to, not by the tabloid media environment which permeates even into established media outlets (The Irish independent reporting on celebrity sexual promiscuity, personal information of sports personalities etc.)   In this essay I will show that the ‘public interest’ and its right to information is based not on a code of ethics which journalists abide by, but rather a system of trade, whereby by privacy is traded for power, and information is traded for money. We will do this by;

1) Analysing what is both a ‘right’ and what do we mean when we speak about ‘privacy’.

2) Identifying Instances where this system of information, power and privacy operates

3) Understanding the precarious approach taken when breaching the privacy of the bereaved

4) And finally, asking why such a system allowed for the coverage of the Roma children story to gain such public appeal.

What is Privacy?

“Privacy is recognised by psychologists as a basic human need; a drive almost as powerful as sex, hunger and thirst”[2].  Society thrives on the exchange of information and the relinquishing of privacy, (banks hold your money, doctors your most personal information), while individuals thrive on their autonomy or their ability to control information about themselves. It would be true to say that some however are entitled to more privacy than others.  When reviewing the instances where it is acceptable to encroach on someone’s privacy, as defined by the NUJ you will note that politicians, bankers and other public figures are those most susceptible to these special instances, and rightly so. There is an understanding between both the public sphere and those in the private, which claims ‘the higher up the ladder one goes, the less entitled to privacy one is’.  This relinquishing of privacy stems from the journalistic notion of the Social Responsibility Theory, which journalists use to defend the invasion of public figure’s information in the interest of the ‘Public Good’[3].  Invading the privacy of politicians is within their job description.  However as already noted there are major problems with this notion of the public good as are there problems with the notion of Social Responsibility.  J Herbert Altschull has described the theory as being ‘a term whose content is so vague that almost any meaning can be placed on it’, and as a result has led us to the morally subjective media environment that we have today.

The ethical dissemination of information about public figures, while justifiable when regarding politicians and those who are accountable to the public, becomes mired when celebrity gossip enters the fold.  Some would defend the celebrity culture, even though it does not fall in line with the guidelines prescribed by the NUJ.  David Archard has claimed that there is a social role to be played by discussing celebrity gossip, that it “Reminds us that we are all very much akin in our private affairs and informing collective reflection upon the standards we claim to share and live by”, others would claim “it is difficult to see why anyone should incur the penalty of what is virtually journalistic open slather simply because they have entered the public arena”.[4] However from this practice of going beyond their duties according to the Social Responsibility Theory, Journalists have contributed to, if not created a system where private information about oneself can be bought and sold.   Privacy exchanged for fame, without any justifiable claim for it to be within the ‘public interest’. Page three models, and Big Brother contestants have cashed in on the voyeuristic nature of the public while Journalists, in the basest publications have facilitated the self-perpetuating market of privacy/power exchange.

What gives us the right?

When discussing the ‘public interest’, our right to be informed about the happenings in the halls of power is what drives its legitimacy, while our democratic vote gives them the right to govern. Politicians are themselves subject to our right to be informed, but rights are simply truisms created by society to manage itself. They are malleable moral guidelines, and are subject to the same system of exchange which both privacy and the ‘public interest’ are.  Some rights are more fundamental than others, the right to free speech, the right to life, the right to information, etc, and the right to privacy however is held in less regard than the others.  In order to strike the balance between what we have a right to be informed about some commentators draw lines under how affected we might be by the actions of such politicians, “In reporting on public figures, we should publish private information, even against their will, if the private activity might significantly affect their performance of duties to their public”.[5]   Although this would sound to be a more exact measure of how far our right to be informed extends it still leaves room for going beyond what we would consider ethical -boundaries.   It is almost impossible for journalists, and even more so for the public to determine how far it into a person’s life we should reach, while still being for the ‘public good’.

When Journalists are left to determine what constitutes a practice which would ‘affect their duties to the public’, errors of judgement are bound to be made.  This is human error, granted one which we must strive to avoid, but given the tumultuous nature of public opinion it is near to impossible to second guess what the public believe they should be informed about. Take the media coverage of tennis player Arthur Ashe in the late 80’s. The media had decided information regarding his contraction of AIDS was harmful enough to his ‘duties as a public figure’, and as a result against his will published the information.   There was public outcry that such a personal part of a man’s life had been flaunted in the media, and the choice to do so was based on the Journalist’s assumption he was operating within the ethical boundaries as outlined by his own duties to the Public Good.   As a result it is clear that the information, rather than being regulated by a standard code of ethics was subject to the exchange system where level of fame gained correlates to level of privacy lost.   His place in the public eye is what cost him his standard right to privacy, he was simply too famous for this information not to enter the public sphere.

‘Get them while they’re hot’

Arguably the most sensitive time in any person’s life, public or otherwise in during the bereavement process.  Here is   space where journalists earn their ‘hack’ badges, or manage to hold on to their credibility.  Should the press have door stopped the family of a child, unknown to the public having passed away from cot death, public opinion would rally in anger at what they would understand to be, ‘an unjust invasion of privacy’. If you were to take the coverage of a figure in the public eye however you would note a major difference in the reaction. Peaches Geldof’s recent passing has been turned into a media spectacle.  The ability to construct a narrative, shock toxicology reports and a pretty face to boot have given the media a story which carries all the necessary ‘Galtung-istic and Ruge-ian’ factors needed to construct an edible news entrée.[6]   Death does not discriminate on the grounds of wealth or fame, so why the public might need to know that they are ‘very much akin in their death as well their personal lives (as David Archard had claimed when justifying the Theory of Social responsibility) is beyond defending.

Editors claim that there is a practical and social function to be played by intruding on the privacy of the bereaved, “many details of a person’s life can only be known by their closest family, particularly where that person is not a public figure”.[7] The wording suggests a passive take on the exchange of family privacy in relation to the media, as if it were offering a service, should it be the proactive choice of the family to disclose such personal information following the death of a family member. Of course as we understand it this is not the case, “generally, journalists approach those who have been in a situation involving death during the first two stages of the grieving process – a state of shock or disbelief, and a state of emotional release…”[8] While attempting to build a code of practice in relation to the grieving process, no attempt is ever made to totally veto the media’s coverage of celebrity deaths. Privacy is again exchanged for fame or notoriety, with the level of privacy disclosed directly relating to the fame of the individual.

There are cases in which this trade between privacy and notoriety can have a positive effect. ‘Stephens Story’, the Twitter account used by terminally ill teenager Stephen Sutton has managed to raise over 3 million pounds for charity.[9]  By disclosing the most personal information of Stephen’s battle with cancer he has managed to manipulate this privacy/power dichotomy for a social good, and most notably had done so by bypassing traditional media forums. The citizen journalism/activism function of social media sites like Twitter, has allowed Stephen to create a media narrative without the aid of the often complex media filter.  By giving up his own privacy Stephen has entered into the public eye and as a result has proactively aided the ‘Public Good’. Maybe therein lies the answer to the question of balance, that information at least in areas of such sensitivity should only be volunteered to the public. When it comes to the powerful and the political maybe the ‘Public Good’ would benefit from allowing them to disclose matters of such intimate privacy within their own time.  Allow the media to become a tool, in such circumstances to be used by the family rather than one which they would battle against.

Privacy and Children

Following the story, covered by all Irish Media agencies surrounding the false charges of kidnapping against a Roma family last year the question of ethical boundaries into personal privacy has highlighted a great caveat in the power/privacy dichotomy.  Charlie Flanagan wrote, in an article which appeared in the Irish Times that the images of the Roma children which circulated in the Irish media, while taken with the consent of the parents, remained outside the boundaries of ethical journalism, “I fail to see what public interest is served by splashing images of innocent children across the news media in a way that not only discloses their identity but places them under spotlight and scrutiny”.[10] While the Irish media operated within the boundaries of the code of practices, as outlined by the Irish Press Council, the level of Privacy taken from the children, consent or no consent, went beyond what is ethically acceptable.

This begs the question, where within our theory of power and privacy does this stand? Children, the elderly and the sick, those who do not have the choice to trade their privacy for power fall on the opposite side of the spectrum to politicians and bankers. They are unable to control information about themselves and in that becomes apparent the injustice that was the coverage of the Roma children.

It is this informational exchange system which balances the public’s right to information, against public figures right to privacy. The manner in which the media acts is not regulated by a vehemently held code of ethics. For those within the public sphere privacy is, at least in the most basic sense a given. By succeeding and entering the public eye that privacy is relinquished. This social contract allows society to self-regulate, it begs questions of the powerful and pushes issues into the public discourse. However it would seem more often than not the public discourse finds itself asking questions of the media, rather than of the powerful. So long as Editors are willing to push boundaries, so long as traditional media feels threatened, and so long as journalists have the power to shape the public conversation there can be no standardised method to balance the right to information against a person’s right to privacy.










Works Cited

Frost, Chris Media Ethics and self-regulation, Person Education Limited , Essex (2000)

Jensen, J. Vernon Ethical issues in the communication Process, Laurence Erlbaum Associates      Publishers, New Jersey (1997)

McGregor, Judy Restating news values: contemporary criteria for selecting the news , Massey   University, In J. McGregor and M. Comrie (Eds)  ‘What’s news? Reclaiming journalism in New     Zealand’. (2002)

Richards, Ian Quagmires and Quandaries Exploring Journalism Ethics, University of New South Whales                 Press LTD, Sydney (2005)

Tulloch, John “What Moral Universe are you from?” Everyday tragedies and the ethics of press intrusion into grief, ‘Communication Ethics Today’, Ed. Richard Keeble, Troubadour                 Publishing Ltd, Leicester (2005)

Internet sites Cited –

Roy Greenslade, The Guardian, Differences in defining the public interest, Thursday 26 July 2007              07.17 BST





Oxegen r.i.p – A look back at an Irish rite of Passage

The wild 'Oxegener', pictured here in its natural habitat. Credit: Eric oduibh via Flickr

Opening up the stiff tent zipper, hands cold and wet from clawing heat into my body through the long muddy night, a vista of chaos was all I could see. 


Like an Apache raid, tents around me were blazing, the cries of empty crisp packets left behind plumed into the Kildare sky and I saw the warriors of blue camp run screaming towards one another.


“I’m never coming back here again,” I said to myself as I stuffed my dirt-encrusted possessions into a bag, like a spy leaving a hotel room. But I did come back, for two consecutive years. To Oxegen, the greatest session known to a 17-year-old. It was a sort of masochistic ritual, a cross filled with cans carried through a field, where, for three nights we would self-flagellate with sharp vodka and occasionally wander into a tent where someone may or may not be playing music.


Now, it is true to say that each person’s Oxygen experience is totally different. Some arrive as avid fans of all acts on show, a pamphlet program swinging about their neck like a badge of respect. Others are there simply for the social aspect – well, as social as striking up a conversation with a guy who is pissing on your tent can be. I, was a mix of the two.



One’s first insight into the Oxegen ‘crowd’ begins with the bus. Leaving from Parnell Street, an old double decker would ferry the souls across the river Styx and here you could identify which camp people would fall into.


Some older, cooler couples sported rain ponchos, lawn chairs and ‘in-case-of-emergency’ pancake makers. These were the experts. Professionals in their field, whichever one they had carefully chosen to stay in.


Then there were the drinkers; three or four lads decked out in floral shorts, old football jerseys as if they believed they were attending a match, and a small industrial forklift full of cheap Lidl cans. 120 cans, you would hear them shout: “40-a-day, just to be safe.”


Then there were the unprepared, the overdressed, the loners, the stoners, the computer programmers. A wild array of Irish life that only at Oxygen would ever merge.



Tent pegs. Confusion. Frustration. Accepting defeat and opening the first warm can.


Watching as the one competent member of your party assembles the crude contraption, while the rest look on in awe.


Choosing where to set up your tent is an art. Some diligent campers would triangulate their resting space using a specific and methodical list of criteria; proximity to the toilets, distance from desired stages, escape routes and, like a upper class hangover, the pedigree of your neighbours.


My own inexperience had left us dropping anchor only 10 feet from the amusements, which would only cease for two hours of the day. The rest would be drowned in haunting remixes of old eighties pop songs. I still seize in fear some nights, the ghastly ‘tilter whirl’ spinning around my brain. I can almost smell the beer-soaked sleeping bag that I used to shield my ears.

Festival oxegen quote


The whole reason you came, or at least the whole reason you tell people you’re going. Apart from last year’s move towards a dance-orientated crowd that brought us the newspaper headline ‘Five teens injured in overnight slashing assault’, Oxegen still pulled in the thousands because it had good bands, putting on good shows.


Nine inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine for the black nail painters and general ‘rockers’, while Kings of Leon, the Script and Coldplay catered for the ‘musical populists’ and the ‘generally boring’. There was something for everyone to enjoy.


Watching a drunken Oxegener fighting against his body’s urge to shut down and mouthing lyrics like a satanic incantation as Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’ boomed through the afternoon air,was personal favourite moment of mine. He, in a lot of ways, summed up the Oxegen ethos for me. Here for the music, but the session comes first.


If you could navigate the minefield of the camp-site, manage not to walk through small communities of lads with republican slogans spray-painted to their tents you would be in for a treat when you reached the arena.


Campers and non-campers were easily distinguishable. Non-campers and day-trippers were full of energy and sunshine, floral wreaths on the girls and designer wellies, buying burgers and chatting about the next act. Camper zombies waded through them, neither alive nor dead, screaming internally ‘You’re having fun’. But it was the kind of fun you derive from a survival mission – it tested your mettle.


For all the pain and cold and fear and disgust, the squatting bush girls, and comatose ‘lads’, Oxegen will forever be remembered by all who ever set foot on its cold ground. No amount of therapy could ever rid you of it.