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Should Public Figures Expect a Right to Personal Privacy?

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  • Category: Privacy

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Privacy is “an individuals right to be let alone” (Gordon: 163). Everyone views privacy differently and where one person might regard some thing as very private, another may not see it in the same light. Therefore, when in comes to reporting on a public figure, it could be fair to say that if the facts are retrieved legitimately, then it is not an invasion of privacy. This means that as long as the Journalists means are moral and legal, then it should cause no harm to others.Public figures are constantly in the limelight. Some say that this is a price they pay for being celebrities or highly rated recognisable figures. However, increasingly the issue of privacy has been raised and it would seem that some Journalists go too far in order to get the latest gossip or scandal.

The death of Princess Diana brought home to the public something that many successful actors have known for years: the stress of being a “public figure”. Celebrities and public figures have to deal with constant exposure and coverage which can be annoying, embarrassing, or worse. More than one actor has physically lashed out at a photographer or fan, sometimes at the cost of a lawsuit or arrest. It is extremely stressful and upsetting for public figures to see their private lives and business splashed over tabloid papers but one could argue that this is the cost of a celebrity lifestyle.

One side of the argument is that Celebrities make a big deal out of nothing and the Media just do their job. It is often argued that the Paparazzi are to blame for the public’s tabloid infatuation. They appeal to people’s curiosity giving the dirt on the latest celebrity scandals and for years celebrities have complained about the lack of privacy that the tabloids refuse to give them. Several celebrities, such as George Clooney have made it their prerogative to ‘spend every free moment’ to allow celebrities the right to sue if they feel that their private lives have been violated. Other celebrities some times resort to more extreme measures, such as Bjork, whose violent outburst ended up with her attacking a journalist. However, we must ask what gives a celebrity the right to slap an innocent photographer who is only doing his job to meet the public’s demands? It is argued that surely, it is the celebrity’s duty as a celebrity to provide the public with access to his/her private life, and pose for “just one more picture”, whether they like it or not.

This side of the argument suggests that it is also the public’s right to know what is happening with their favourite celebrity. If celebrities’ can’t deal with the fact that they are in the public’s eye, then why are they celebrities in the first place? It is argued that they need to get it through their heads that this is the price they pay for being famous. However, I do not agree with this view at all. Yes, celebrities know that by becoming famous they will enter the scrutiny of the public gaze but this should not involve the complete invasion of their private lives. Indeed, the “paparazzi” have every right to do their jobs, and the public has a right to read it or look at it but this does not involve invading people’s private lives.

Concerned with this side of the argument is Carol Reuss’s view that the media should make decisions “concerning the boundary between newsworthiness and individual rights of privacy” (Reuss: 164). She feels that the Media provide an important public service “by scrutinising the background of political candidates” (Reuss: 171). The courts have also suggested that “media scrutiny” is for the “greater good” (164) of the public because they then have access to complete information on the “public area” (165).

However, I feel that privacy is a different issue altogether. Unlike Reuss, I do not feel that “the mass media should be capable of assessing what the public needs to know” (Reuss: 164), as we have seen in past events that they have been unable to do this. Take the case of Naomi Campbell for example.

In April 2002, Campbell won around �5,000 in damages when she filed a lawsuit against the tabloid newspaper, The Mirror. The paper had published a photograph of Campbell leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. As a result, Campbell had sued, pursuant to British law, for breach of confidence, unlawful invasion of privacy, and violation of the U.K.’s Data Protection Act. This verdict helped to show that anyone is entitled to protection for their private lives and that everything needs validating and consequences need addressing. In this case, not only was the celebrity compensated, but The Mirror’s reputation was also damaged as a decent and fair medium.

Gordon’s argument is the opposite of Reuss’ and backs up my view that every one deserves a certain extent of privacy. He argues that “the news and entertainment media cannot be the sole judges” (Gordon: 168) of peoples rights to privacy. He argues that “privacy is the most important concept for anyone who respects the dignity and autonomy of fellow human beings” (168). Like his argument, I also feel that some things should remain private and that in the past there have been many poor decisions on where to draw a line.

I feel that there cannot be too much criticism of an institution which blatantly disregards people’s right to privacy. At the moment, the tabloid photographers’ defence is that they are simply fulfilling a public demand but as long as the public has supposedly exclusive photographs available for them to buy, they will not resist the temptation. I do not deny that celebrities open themselves up to coverage but they all deserve privacy over certain things. They are voluntary public people and therefore maybe scrutinised, but the papers should do so in an “accurate and fair context” (Reuss: 165). Campbell’s case can also be used here to show that although a Celebrity and in the public eye, Naomi chose to keep her addiction and treatment secret. I feel that this was her every right as she is not some one who is in control of important decisions that will effect the public, e.g. an MP or countries leader.

It is wrong to take photographs that have been obtained without permission, for example through trespassing on private property and stolen photographs just for public entertainment. Subjects should surely know if photographs are being taken and therefore give their permission. Fair enough the press cannot always advertise when they are observing people in such cases of having long lens cameras from off shore but if they are using these types of cameras, then surely they are doing something deceitful. They should be only allowed to take such pictures if their actions can be justified by their subjects actions causing harm to others.

Publication is wrong in a variety of circumstances. In many circumstances publication of photographs often follows on from a pattern of harassment of a figure.

“A photographer who follows his quarry day and night wherever she goes, never letting her out of his sight, and photographing her every move, behaves unreasonably” (Archard: 83). Archard argues that it may not always be wrong to take a one off photo but it is wrong when a photo is published after a bout of harassment.

Breaching the confidence of a person is also wrong. It is wrong when a person enters a confidential relationship with someone else and is betrayed. An example of this is when photographs were taken of the late princess Diana in 1993 whilst in a gym. These were obtained with the knowledge and cooperation of her gym owner, breaching her confidence and trust.

Photographers intentions must also be called into question over publications. If a photograph is published with the intent to “humiliate, ridicule, belittle or unfairly stigmatise the subject” (Archard: 83), then it goes against moral ethics and could be classified as being wrong. It is also argued to be wrong if a story goes beyond fair comment and surpasses a newsworthy event into confidential information. It might not be seen to be the Press’s business to invade what a person does in their own free time with another.

Although celebrities have lost some aspects of their privacy, they should be able to retain others. Campbell is a world-famous public figure who has based her career on the widespread dissemination of photographs of her image. In that sense, she is one of the world’s most “public” people. Yet the activities Campbell sought to keep secret – her past use of narcotics and her more recent attendance at the NA meeting – occurred in private, either alone or in groups of trusted friends or co-members of NA. (NA meeting attendees pledge to keep proceedings confidential). Therefore, as she is not harming anyone else, she should be able to keep this information to herself.

Often, it is the intensely private aspects of a celebrity’s life – involving drugs, sex or sexual orientation, marital discord, issues with children or other family members, or similar topics – that the public and the media deem newsworthy. (Illegality only ratchets up the stakes, and increases interest in the story.) But is the public entitled to know such private details about a celebrity, just because that person is a public figure?

By becoming a public figure, this does not then mean that all of your privacy is automatically forfeited. Celebrities should enjoy as much privacy as ordinary citizens when it comes to issues that cause no harm to the public. It is not “the public’s ‘right’ to know anything that the media learn about” (Gordon: 169). He argues “that right to know doesn’t always justify printing or broadcasting intimate personal details” (Gordon: 169).

There is definitely a difference between the public’s right to know and their desire to know. I feel that the public only really have a right to know when the facts will cause significant harm or concern. An example of this is that of President Clinton. Although it was not our need to know about his sexual relations, it concerns us that he was capable of lying under oath. In 1998, Clinton on television, claimed under oath not to have had any sexual liaisons with Monika Lewinsky. However, only weeks later, he changed his story and admitted to it. Although Clinton did have the right not to have his private life exposed like he did, the important matter was that he lied under oath and we must question whether he would do this again. If the most powerful man in the World is prepared to lie to his country, what else might he lie to them about. This is where we must question the boundaries for public figures. It is when their private behaviour interferes with their public behaviour that it becomes a matter of concern for the public.

Mills’ harm principle is relevant to this as well. He states that “the only purpose for which power can rightly be exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physically or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” (Mills as shown by Horner). This backs up my statement that the public only have a right to know if harm will be caused. Although Clinton just did not tell the truth, it could be argued that lies are a legitimate public interest when the person in question is in a high, powerful position. This is when there is a plausible case for public interest and accountability, and therefore an invasion of privacy. This also follows Archard’s argument that there must be good reasons in order to justify a breach of privacy.

Archard agrees that revealing politicians “sexual peccadilloes” (Archard: 85) can effectively display his hypocrisy and unsuitability for high office. This shows a high concern for public interest as it will prevent the public from being misled by showing officials as corrupt and dishonest. Therefore, if the exposure of a private matter serves a public interest then an invasion of privacy could be justified.

Ultimately, there must be a line when it comes to invading ones privacy, especially in an illegitimate way. “Privacy has to do with keeping personal information non-public or undisclosed” (Archard: 83). Peoples views on privacy differs greatly and where one person may be happy to disclose certain information, another might be embarrassed. Therefore, we must only disclose private matters when they cause harm to others. Celebrities must expect some invasion of privacy in being famous but it should not cross a line. I believe that only when it causes harm to others need it be made public. For example, although it was not our right to know about ex-Presidents Clinton sexual liaisons, it was our right to know that he had lied under oath. Therefore, when celebrities do commit adultery or use drugs, they must be aware that their actions might lead to other consequences that will involve all information coming out. They deserve as much privacy as an every day person in most cases but not when it comes to causing harm to others.


Archard in Kieran. M, ed 1998. Media Ethics. London: Routledge.

Gordon. A, Kittross. J, Reuss, C. eds 1996. Controversies in media ethics. White Plains: New York: Longman.

Keeble. R, 2001. Ethics for Journalists. London: Routledge.




Horner, D. Private Lives and Public Interests. 2002

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