Thursday, September 9, 2010

Public Interest versus Privacy - A Journalist's Dilemma

At what point does legitimate public interest become crass public prurience?

By considering this question I will explore as Richards states in Public Interest, Private Lives, “the ethical and legal tightrope that stretches between an individual’s right to privacy and the media’s right to publish, exploring notions of privacy, journalistic justifications for intrusion, and the impact of corporate influences on media ethics,” (cited in Tapsall & Varley, 2006, p. 185).

Central to this topic is the right to privacy.

Richards states that “a right means a guarantee of protection from certain actions of others, or an entitlement to a positive concept such as ‘liberty’” (cited in Tapsall & Varley, 2006, p. 188).

Archard states “the notion of the private delineates a sphere within which we are free to be intimate with others and pursue goals and interests we have without being subject to the public gaze” (cited in Kieran, 1997, p.76).

When journalists intrude on an individual’s privacy their usual defence is that it is in the ‘public’s interest’.

The Australian Press Council states that “'Public interest' is defined as involving a matter capable of affecting the people at large, so they might be legitimately interested in, or concerned about, what is going on, or what may happen to them or to others” (Pearson, 2005, p.12).

The right to privacy has only been identified in the past 100 years and continues to change as our culture changes.

Richards outlines that such a right does exist and can be violated in four ways, including:

1.    Intrusion, meaning the unwarranted violation of one’s physical solitude
2.    Publication of embarrassing private facts
3.    Publication of information that places someone in false light and
4.    Appropriation, meaning the use of an individual’s name, picture or likeness without that persons’ permission, usually for commercial exploitation (cited in Tapsall & Varley, 2006, p.189).

Richards also outlines the justifications journalists use for favouring intrusion over respect for privacy which include:

•    By entering public life, individuals surrender any claim to personal privacy;
•    Journalists have a duty to report situations when these details could have relevance to the public performance of an individual or group;
•    Individual journalists are simply conduits for information, and it is up to the readers/listeners/viewers to decide the limits;
•    If it is not illegal, it must be permissible, (cited in Tapsall & Varley 2006, p. 191).


An example of intrusion by journalists was evident during Princess Mary of Denmark’s visit to Tasmania in August 2010, to see her family at her sister’s home in Hobart.

Awaiting media outside Princess Mary of Denmark sister's home in Hobart.

In late 2009, an amendment to privacy laws in Tasmania occurred, which now imposes fines or jail terms for breaches of privacy. The Act states it is illegal to visually record a person "in circumstances where a reasonable person would expect to be afforded privacy" and then distribute the images. In practice, it means pictures of Princess Mary or other family and friends inside the boundaries of her sister's home would be considered a breach of the Act.

The journalists pictured above are close to breaching the Act and are not reporting a public interest story but merely a public curiosity story.

Another example of intrusion is the public disclosure of embarrassing private affairs, which was evident in May 2010 when video footage of NSW Transport and Roads Minister, David Campbell, leaving a Sydney Gay Sex Club, surfaced.

Sydney Morning Herald new story - video footage of David Campbell

A Channel Seven news report suggested Mr Campbell had resigned after questions were put to him about using his ministerial car to visit a gay sex club. If the report is accurate, Mr Campbell did not break any rules governing the use of official cars, as there are no restrictions on personal use.

Therefore what was the point of the story? Do you think the journalists of Channel Seven should have aired this story? Was it in the ‘public’s interest’?

It is hard to see how the public interest is served by this disclosure. I do not believe it was in the public’s interest as his private affairs did not affect his job. The publication of this story caused unneeded trauma to his seriously ill wife and forced Mr Campbell to resign due to ‘personal reasons’.

The State Political Editor of the Herald newspaper, Sean Nicholls, asked his readers the question, 'Should Channel Seven have aired the story and footage?'

Of the 60,000 readers who responded, 22% believed Channel Seven was right in airing the story, while a
large 78% believed it should not have been aired.

Some of the comments found about the story on the Herald’s website include;

A career ruined, a family humiliated. This was not in the public interest, just cheap tabloid journalism. Shame on you, Channel Seven.
Fair Go - May 21, 2010, 10:14AM

Another life ruined by the endless search for a story. Does it really matter if he used his government car? This is a matter for David Campbell and his family. Not the media digging for yet another dirty story.
Jimbob | Port Stephens - May 21, 2010, 9:58AM

It's between David Campbell and his family. No one else's business. He hasn't broken any laws and his private life does not affect how he does his job.
bemused | Sydney - May 21, 2010, 9:52AM  (Nicholls, 2010, online).

These examples have highlighted how some journalists write and publish content merely for commercial interests opposed to the public’s interest. However, journalists are also faced with greater ethical decisions when it concerns stories about death, trauma and grief.

As shown in Clause 11 of the Code of Ethics, journalists must "Respect private grief and personal privacy" (Australian Journalist's Association - Code of Ethics).

Richards explains in his book, Public Interest, Private Lives, the ethical dilemma faced by Melbourne journalists from The Age newspaper when publishing a photo of a murdered policemen in a pool of blood. These journalists faced the dilemma of respecting the grief of the family or providing real news – the murder of two policemen which had “key elements of genuine human drama” (cited in Tapsall & Varley 2005, p.187).

This dilemma was also evident in California, when photojournalist John Harte photographed a five year old drowning victim and his grieving family. The ethical question here is whether the paper should have published the photo.

Californian photojournalist, John Harte's controverisal photo.

Robert Bentley, managing editor of the paper at that time, felt that with the number of drowning victims in the area, to run a picture of this emotional impact would be a painful and lasting reminder for the community.

Using the 'Principle of Utility' (the ethical principle that seeks the greatest good for the greatest number of people), Bentley felt that even though the picture would offend the family and several community members, it would serve a greater good for a greater number of people.

Editor of Walla Walla (Washington) Union Bulletin, Ed Clendaniel, also argued in favour of the photo’s publication stating, “we believe the photograph does more to promote water safety than 10,000 words could ever hope to accomplish” (Clendaniel in Christians, Fackler & Rotzoll 1995, p.128).

Do you believe the photo should have been published?

The story could have been told without the photo. I believe that the rationale to publish the photo is not a strong argument. Parents already know that young children need to be supervised when they are in the water and the photo only caused further pain to the family.

The newspaper’s “readers bombarded the 80,000 circulation daily with 400 phone calls, 500 letters, and 80 cancellations...[and] even received a bomb threat...” (Christians, Fackler & Rotzoll 1995, p.128).

Australia has no general tort of privacy invasion, as the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) focuses mainly on private information held by government departments and large corporations.

However, there are codes of practice journalists can look to for general guidance in such matters.
The Australian Press Council states that the news should be presented “honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals”, with the warning that “the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record or obvious and significant public interest” (McDonnell - Australian Press Council 2004).


The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s (MEAA) division, the Australian Journalists Association (AJA), has a Code of Ethics and an ethics review committee that notes privacy to involve:
•    the person (bodily privacy),
•    conversations (eavesdropping),
•    seclusion (surveillance), and
•    personal information (unauthorised disclosure) (MEAA 1997).

The clauses central to our argument today are clause 8 and 11 of the Code which state; Clause 8: Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material. Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast. Never exploit a person's vulnerability or ignorance of media practice. Clause 11: Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.


The Australian Journalists Association monitors and handles complaints. If journalists are found guilty of breaching the Code they may be suspended, given a fine of $1000 or expelled from membership.

As Pearson states "Whether or not a court or a self-regulatory body ultimately reviews a journalist’s decisions in privacy matters, reporters and news directors are frequently called to account for such decisions, sometimes in other media such as talkback radio programs or on the ABC’s Media Watch program, and often simply by their own readers, viewers or listeners as they discuss the material they are accessing" (2005, p.15), as seen in the David Campbell example.

 Why is there a need for the Code of Ethics when membership is voluntary?

There is a need for a Code of Ethics so that journalists are aware of the right way to ethically gather and report news. It provides journalists with a framework and standard to adhere to, to ensure they remain credible and fulfil their jobs of being public ‘watchdogs’ through decent and fair means. The Code is a mechanism of self-regulation. As Christians, Fackler and Rotzoll state, “There are several reasons why establishing an ethics of privacy that goes beyond the law is important in the gathering and distribution of news” (1995, p.115).


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