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.
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”. 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’. 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”. 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”. 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. 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”. 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…” 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. 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”. 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.
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Internet sites Cited –
Roy Greenslade, The Guardian, Differences in defining the public interest, Thursday 26 July 2007 07.17 BST