December 14, 2007

Privacy Matters

When I read though excerpts of Princess Di’s letters in the Telegraph today - driven by curiosity - I started to wonder how far journalists should go when reporting about private matters.

Then I remembered a statement about privacy and correspondence that I had read just recently. It is part of the Code of Practice published by the Press Complaints Commission and it says that

„Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.“

So, if everyone is entitled to respect for his or her privacy, how come that Diana’s letters are on every newspaper’s front page? How is it possible that week after week newspapers and glossies publish new celebrity scandals, telling us juicy details about their relationships and sex life?
The answer is: Publicity!

Although every person’s right to privacy is protected through the Human Rights Act of 1998 and different codes of conduct, intruding a person’s privacy can be justified, if a) the person is in a public place, b) the person is of public interest (this is true for Diana), or c) the breach of privacy is in the public interest, which includes

Protecting public health and safety
Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety
Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation

Although there have been attempts to define those categories, a concept like “public interest” will always leave room for interpretation, as the following example will show.

Naomi vs Daily Mirror
In 2001 the British newspaper Daily Mirror published pictures of supermodel Naomi Campbell as she emerges from a session at Narcotics Anonymous. The headline next to the pictures said: Naomi: I am a drug addict.

After the pictures had been published, Naomi Campbell, who had always denied any accusations of using drugs, sued the newspaper for breach of privacy. She argued that the newspaper had gone to far and that a person in recovery should be free to receive treatment without fear of press intrusion.
The Daily Mirror on the other hand argued that publishing the pictures was justified because the supermodel had lied about her drug addiction before, misleading the public. The daily Mirror argued further that Ms Campbell was a person of public interest, who tries to get herself in the spotlight all the time.
After several verdicts hade been made and revised, the court finally came to a decision and said that the Daily Mirror was wrong to publish the story.
The law lords said that the test was whether benefits achieved by publication are proportionate to harm that may be done by interference with the right to privacy. In this case, the Lords argued in favour of Naomi Campbell, saying that she was in a fragile state and due protection.
Read the Mirror's statement about this decision: Flaw Lords

Although, this verdict was based on the British law rather than on any code of conduct, this case exemplifies the difficulties that arise when journalists have to consider which concept has more value to them: a person’s privacy or the public’s right to know!

In the case of Naomi Campbell I would argue that it WAS the public’s right to know! I, in general, agree with her statement that a person’s privacy should be respected especially when one is in recovery, but when a person is as publicity-seeking as she is, this argument becomes ridiculous. Since she first entered the public sphere, Naomi Campbell has publicly discussed her relationships with superstars like Robert De Niro, talked about her childhood, revealed details about her sex life and invited media to her home in Jamaica.
So if she uses the media whenever she feels like it, to get into the spotlight, she should not be surprised, when the media decides to use her to make some headlines!

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