Privacy and the public interest

I’ve never particularly been a fan (though I did love him in “Sirens,” which is one of my all-time favorite movies) but Hugh Grant just did something thoroughly amazing this week, by secretly interviewing a former exec for U.K. tabloid News of the World.

Though he likely didn’t intend more than just an exposé of tabloid practices and the cozy relationships between U.K. conservatives, I think Grant has hit upon something far more fascinating. Specifically, the way that his interviewee so easily conflates coverage of celebrities with coverage of politics.

The gist of what he seems to be getting at is that anyone who is well-known by the public, for whatever reason (actor, politician, crime victim) is somehow equally powerful, and therefore should be subject to equal scrutiny by the press. This is how he justifies practices like stalking and phone hacking which any average citizen would consider an egregious breach of privacy.

So are these practices justified? For everyone who has a recognizable name and face? And if so, why?

First, a disclaimer. I currently get a paycheck for doing content for an entertainment media company. Its tabloid-ish wing often posts stuff I really don’t agree with, and we sometimes post wire stories that have questionable sourcing and story angles. Being a worker bee, I don’t have a lot of control over this, unfortunately, but I do try to keep things ethical where and when I can. As entertainment media goes, I do think the place that pays me is more above-board than most. If I ever felt truly uncomfortable with something it did, I’d leave without hesitation.

Now that that’s out of the way…

I don’t buy the argument that entertainment and sports celebrities have no real power and thus deserve no scrutiny at all by the public. On the contrary, I’d argue that many of these people are several times more recognizable and culturally influential than politicians or industry leaders. (Quick, name the CEO of Costco. Or the person heading your county council. No? Now name the person who plays the lead on “Dexter.” Bingo.) There’s a reason that celebrities are included in the actual malice exception in U.S. libel law.

However, there are degrees to this power and influence. Not everyone who’s ever gotten paid to perform or play a sport is rich and powerful. And even people who are very recognizable and get paid fairly well may not have much influence because they’re not in that role-model sweet spot. Really, I don’t think Steve Buscemi is going to head up a cultural rebellion anytime soon.

That being the case, there’s obviously no blanket justification for violating the privacy of every member of a professional sports team or anyone who carries a SAG card. But is there justification for people who are more influential? Or does the justification solely come down to “this photo is going to make me $10k because people want to see Brangelina making out”?

Perhaps the creepiest thing the tabloid guy brought up is the idea that just because someone gets paid a lot to do what they do, they somehow deserve to have their privacy invaded. Really? My household probably makes about as much each year as a sidekick on a cable show, so should I be subject to such invasion, too? Or would that not matter because no-one’s going to pay thousands to find out what brand of underwear I buy?

Neither money nor recognizability automatically confers power, and even in cases when a “rich and famous” person does have some cultural influence, they don’t actually have anywhere near the real power that government and industry has, and thus shouldn’t at all be subject to the same justifications for a privacy invasion. In other words, no, there’s no compelling public interest involved here, and therefore there’s no justification. Just because the public wants to know every little move an A-lister makes doesn’t mean they need to know that. The mere potential for making money off of these privacy invasions simply isn’t enough of a justification for them.

Of course most people in these professions know that, to at least some degree, part of their job is to be Famous Actor/Sports Person in addition to the roles and games they get paid to play. True introverts wouldn’t be in these professions. But there is a huge, huge difference between red carpet pics and voluntary interviews and having some photog hiding in the bushes at a park snapping pics of you playing with your kid.

There’s also a much more critical problem with this attitude than merely invading folks’ personal lives: Watering down the credibility of news media as a whole. And I’ll get to that in the next post.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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