Chapter 62: Privacy and public interest

In this chapter, we look at the relationship between a person's right to privacy and the public's right to know about that person's life. We discuss what it means to be a public figure and what rights journalist have to examine their lives and the lives of their families. We conclude by examining the rights of people to grieve in private.

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The first duty of a journalist is to let people know what is going on in the world around them, so that they can make their own decisions about what to think, do or say.

Problems arise where the right of society to be informed conflicts with the right of individuals to privacy.

This is an area where sensitivity is important and where your concern for the individual must be balanced with your responsibility to society as a whole.

On issues of privacy and public interest, there is often no clear-cut distinction between right and wrong. We can give some general guidance and suggest a few rules, but you will have to decide what to do case-by-case.

The conflict for journalists

Whenever you cover a story where there is a chance of conflict between the public's right to know and the individual's right to privacy, the first thing you should do is ask yourself two questions:

  • Will I intrude on a person's private life by the way I collect the news? For example, should you go up to grieving parents and try to interview them about their murdered son? Should you approach a politician at a social event and ask him questions about his work?

  • Will I intrude on people's private life by publishing or broadcasting the story? For example, should you publish a story about a local sporting star leaving his spouse and children for another woman or man?

It is often possible to justify publishing something about a person's private life in the public interest, even though you cannot justify upsetting them in the way you gather the news. An example of this is when covering a tragedy. You may be able to justify telling your readers or listeners about the murder of a child, even though the publicity will cause the parents further grief. But you might not be able to justify going up to the parents and asking questions while they are shocked and grieving.

There are some very clear conflicts and not many simple answers. We will guide you through some of the main problem areas, giving you as much advice as possible. But in the end, you and your fellow journalists will still have to make hard decisions yourselves.

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Private lives

It is important to define what is meant by "private lives". In cases where people have jobs with normal working hours, the boundaries are usually clear between their private lives and their work. The bus driver becomes an employee when he starts his working day and reverts to being a private individual when he finishes work. He can be as rude, unhelpful and abusive as a he wants in private, but is expected to be polite and helpful when on duty.

The distinction between private and public lives becomes less clear when people carry on part of their professional life outside of normal working hours. A successful businessman needs to make contacts at any time, a social worker may decide to call on a client on his or her way home, just for a chat. They are carrying their professional lives into their private time, but are they merging their professional and private lives?

The distinction almost ceases to exist in cases where an individual's work or professional life depends entirely on them presenting their total selves to the public. Politicians are the best examples. People elect politicians to office for who they are, not just for their skills in a particular job. A politician's career depends on meeting lots of people and being popular with voters. Priests are another group who present their total selves to the public, especially their parishioners.

Then there are people in the world of entertainment who depend for their success on the image they project to the public. Many deliberately blur the distinction between their on-screen and off-screen personalities to achieve success. For example, many film stars like to appear glamorous in real life and have their photographs published in newspapers and magazines so that they remain well-known and will be chosen for another movie.

Although it is often difficult to separate a person's private life from their public role, most of us can recognise the limits in individual professions and specific cases.

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Public figures

How far can you probe into a person's private life to get news? This is most easily answered where the individuals are public figures, especially where they are people who have put themselves forward for public positions of trust. We are talking here particularly about people like politicians, group leaders, clergymen and all those people whose personalities and private morality are essential parts of their work.

You must make a distinction between those people who have voluntarily entered the public arena and those who are forced into it by circumstances they could not reasonably have expected. For example, a businessman who holds a press conference to announce some new money-making project is seeking public attention; the airline hostess who suddenly discovers she has contracted a rare tropical disease has simply been thrust into the news against her will.

You could justify probing into both the public and private finances of the businessman. You cannot justify digging up scandalous details of the flight attendant's private life where it does not have any relevance to the story of the disease.

There is also the question of who is a public figure. Most journalists would accept that it is their duty to examine the whole life of someone like the President of the United States in detail because he put himself forward to be President. His press secretary acts as the President's mouthpiece on many public issues and is expected to reflect the President's thinking. Is the press secretary a public figure? Would journalists be justified in publishing stories about his affair with an office cleaner?

The answer to the first question is that maybe he is a public figure. The answer to the second question is probably "No", we should not write about his affair with the office cleaner - unless he was giving the cleaner government secrets in bed, and she was passing them on to an enemy. Or if there was a chance that he could be blackmailed into betraying his public trust because of the affair.

Royalty and other hereditary leaders

It is difficult to put hereditary leaders such as royalty in the classes we have just discussed. Although they are obviously public figures, they did not put themselves forward for office in the same way as politicians. Neither do they depend on being liked by the public, although most of them probably want to be.

So the question is: How much privacy can they expect? The answer will vary between different societies and different hereditary leaders. In some societies, royalty is treated almost like public property, with the media feeling that they can comment on anything they do, in public or in private. In other societies, it is not acceptable to criticise royalty at all, even in their public lives.

You must bear in mind the conventions in your own society, and ask the following questions: Does your society in general believe that their hereditary leaders should be questioned or criticised? If it does, how far can the media go in criticism? Can you criticise their public performance in office? Can you examine even their most private lives?

Do you as a journalist have the right to criticise their behaviour under special circumstances, even if the tradition is not to question them? If they accept public funds, can they be criticised for corruption? How bad must their behaviour be before you should report on it?

There is no single answer to these questions. The answers depend on your society. But if you ask yourself the questions, you might find the answers for your society.

The right to know

There are a number of specific reasons why the media have the right to probe the private lives of public figures.

Where a person's character is an essential part of performing their public role, the public has the right to know any facts which reveal special aspects of their character, especially faults. This is because:

  • Private morality can tell us something about the person's character, and how it could affect their professional performance. If, in his private life, a public figure is found to have lied in a serious way, the public should be made aware that he could be lying in his work, too. Where public figures are responsible for setting a moral tone in society, any private immorality should be exposed as hypocrisy. For example, society should be aware that a leading campaigner against child abuse regularly beats his own children.

  • The media should constantly examine the lives of public figures with responsibility for public funds and other assets. Politicians who have the power to influence the awarding of contracts should accept that their private friendships with business people should be open to public view. After all, it is taxpayers' money they could be giving away illegally. Politicians can promise voters that their friendships will never influence them in public office. As a journalist, you should monitor whether they keep that promise.

  • If any misdeeds in private could be used to blackmail that person into compromising their public trust, the public has the right to know about it. In 1963, newspapers revealed that the British Defence Minister John Profumo had been sleeping with a woman who was also having a sexual relationship with the military attaché at the Soviet embassy in London. Although it was never suggested that the woman had passed British secrets from Profumo to her Soviet lover, Profumo was forced to resign in disgrace, largely because secrets could have been passed. To make matters worse, Profumo, a married man, had lied to the British Parliament about his affair. High office carries a heavy burden as well as great rewards.

News must be unusual and interesting, but we cannot expect always to find an educational aspect of every story we cover. Many people read newspapers and listen to the radio simply to know what is happening in the world around them, whether or not it will make them better people.

However, there is a dividing line between those things which the public has a right to know and those which individuals have a right to keep private, no matter how interesting they might be to other people. If a public figure's strange behaviour in the privacy of his own home has no possible effect on his public role, the media cannot claim they have a duty to report it. They would simply be invading the person's privacy.

It is not easy either to define or maintain a balance, but you have the responsibility to try.

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The right to privacy

Public figures still have the right to some privacy, where it can be shown that there is no overlap with the performance of their public role.

They have the right to relax away from the eyes of the public. For example, it might be unwise for a prime minister to play cards for money if gambling is not approved of in your society. However, if he plays with a group of friends within the privacy of his own home, perhaps he is entitled to some relaxation.

The public does have the right to question their methods of relaxation when public figures use their position to gain preferential treatment. For example, if a government minister asked the local golf club to close its greens for the day so that he could play uninterrupted with his friends, it could be argued that he was abusing his authority. The community (especially members of the club) should be informed.

Celebrities

In the matter of privacy, entertainers often make a plea for special treatment as public figures. They argue that, as they are not appointed or elected to positions of public trust, their off-stage or off-screen lives are nobody's business but their own. They say that they play a fantasy role in a movie or a television show, and their real lives are private.

For journalists, the issue centres on whether public figures use publicity to promote a good image of themselves to the public. If they do, they cannot reasonably claim that the media should also not expose their bad qualities.

Much depends on the way they portray themselves both on and off the screen (or stage or page). If the entertainers themselves deliberately merge their on-screen and off-screen personalities, the media and the public can be forgiven for confusing the two and taking an interest in their private lives. If a serious actor makes his living from his performances but does not attempt to gain extra publicity when off the stage, he would have more success in demanding a private life away from media attention.

This argument also extends to sportsmen and women who try to be public personalities off the field as well as on it. If they use the media to make money, they cannot be surprised when the media use their private lives to sell newspapers.

The more that people use the media machine, the more they can expect to be used by it.

Families

How far should the families of public figures be the subject of media scrutiny? If a famous film star's son is arrested on a drug charge, should that be given more prominence than another person on a similar charge? The media often argue that they cover such stories not from the angle of the son's misdeeds but the effect it has on his famous father, assuming that the star's life is public property. Some journalists also argue that the son probably enjoyed the financial or social benefits of his father's position in the community and should, therefore, accept the responsibilities which go with the benefits. However, the situation is far from clear. Inexperienced journalists should leave such decisions to their senior colleagues until they have gained enough experience to know in their own hearts what is right.

The situation is slightly clearer in cases where people have been thrust into the public eye through no decision of their own. Should the media concern itself with the private lives of the families of the astronauts who died in the Challenger space shuttle? If one of the widows marries a man half her age, should the media cover the story even though it causes her distress?

You are often able to make judgments based on your own perception of what is news for your readers or listeners in particular cases. For example, would you cover any or all of the following stories?

  • A film star's son commits suicide.
  • The Police Minister's wife is caught stealing.
  • The council surveyor's daughter is on a drink-driving charge.

We stress that there is no single right or wrong answer, but these are the kinds of questions you should discuss with colleagues, taking into account all relevant factors.

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Grief

Journalists have to be especially sensitive during certain times in people's lives. The media should respect the privacy of even the most prominent public figure if a loved one dies. This does not mean that you avoid covering the story. In fact, tragic deaths are often the kind of story your readers or listeners will be interested in. However, you should approach all tragedies with sensitivity and even try to find alternative sources of information.

Many people have family and friends who gather round at times of tragedy. Often, one or two relatives or friends will take responsibility for doing practical tasks such as arranging the funeral or answering telephone calls, while the others mourn. Instead of approaching a dead man's grieving widow or a murdered child's mother, first try the close relative who has taken on the role of communicating with the outside world. Once you have established links with them, you can ask whether or not you can talk to the wife or the mother, but stress that the decision is entirely theirs. Some people actually welcome the opportunity to talk to the media at such times, either because it is an emotional release or because they believe that their loved one was important enough for their death to be recorded in the media.

In radio or television, you can justify broadcasting an interview with a grieving relative, sobs and all. However, the sobs and gasps should not be included simply for the emotional effect they will have on your viewers or listeners. They must be part of the way your interview is telling the story.

If, in an emotional outburst, the subject tells you to go away and leave them alone, it would be insensitive to broadcast that simply for effect. People should be allowed to grieve in their own way and we should not judge them at such times.

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Journalists as public figures

Everything we have said about privacy and publicity applies also to journalists. If you believe you have the right to inform the public and you do it responsibly, you can argue for the same treatment for your private life.

However, if you overstep those boundaries to sell more papers or attract more viewers or listeners, you have no right to argue for special treatment if others overstep the same boundaries to examine your private life.

This is especially true of those journalists who indulge in the cult of the news personality. The more journalists put their own personality into their presentation of the news, the more they can expect others (especially other journalists) to focus attention on their personalities, both public and private. The person who simply and objectively reads the news bulletins can expect to enjoy a private life; the one who presents a television chat show or writes a personal comment column in a newspaper must accept the risks associated with fame.

TO SUMMARISE:

You have a right to report on the public life of public figures

You can report on the private life of public figures if

  • it tells something about their character which might affect their public duty
  • they are responsible for public assets
  • their private misdeeds could affect the public good

You have no right to intrude on a person's private life where there is no public benefit

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Index to Chapter 62
  1. The conflict for journalists
  2. Private lives
  3. Public figures
  4. The right to privacy
  5. Grief
  6. Journalists as public figures
  7. To summarise
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