Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Debate at Literary and Historical Society, University College Dublin, January 30, 2008:

The news media should not be permitted to intrude upon the privacy of public figures. Nicholas Jones, a member of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, spoke in support of the motion:

I afraid there is no turning back: whether we like it not, media intrusion is all around us, in the old media as much as in the burgeoning new media. And it is not just journalists and a new generation of citizen journalists who are to blame. Inside of all of us there is what seems to have become an inner understanding of what interests and excites the media. Indeed I would go as far as to suggest that this is almost reflected in our genes, a component if you like of our 21st-century genome.

We only have to look at video sharing and social networking sites like YouTube, MySpace and FaceBook to realise how far and how fast the internet has revolutionised not just the standards of the traditional media but also our whole attitude towards what might have been thought was private in the past but what is now very openly on public display. It is not simply the media but the public at large who are redefining the boundaries of privacy. Most mobile phones take pictures, lots do audio and video as well. So who ever we are and where ever we are we can find ourselves caught on camera, however much we may dislike it or hate the intrusion.

Therefore the thought that we can somehow legislate to enforce controls over who can and who cannot take pictures, is just wishful thinking. So even if we say the media should not be permitted to intrude into the privacy of public figures -- and by and large I support that -- I do not think that protection can be guaranteed. However, for those public figures who wish to preserve their privacy and who would like to have at least some influence over the way their public appearances are reported, this does not mean all is lost. There should be higher standards on what is published and broadcast and many campaigners, myself included, believe that far stricter rules should apply.

We need media responsibility and we need to consider how we can roll back the increasing irresponsibility of the media. But equally, because surveillance of all kinds -- whether official or unofficial -- is far greater than ever before, I think public figures have a much greater responsibility to think about their own behaviour and set their own limits on the degree of access which they are prepared to offer both the media and the public. What is needed is a degree of self discipline by those in the public eye. If they seek to manipulate their public appearances for publicity, perhaps for political advantage or commercial gain, they cannot then be surprised if their behaviour is monitored and scrutinised by the media.

Nor can they complain if their conduct is observed by all the other citizen journalists who are out there, empowered by new technology, and whose intrusive pictures of celebrities misbehaving can command high prices in the tabloid press. Let us take an obvious example: If one day a politician or public figure is happy to use his or her family, their homes and their children, for the purposes of publicity -- for calculated photo-opportunities and the like -- then the following day they can hardly complain if photographers try to get even more pictures by taking advantage of what perhaps was supposed to have been a private event.

Hence the accusations of double standards against the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie. One day they were happy to parade their children for a political occasion but then complained the following day about media intrusion. Similarly the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, has opened up his home to the media, eager to be photographed with his children, anxious to show that he is the happily married family man. We have seen him and his wife with their disabled son, showing how their son is cared for by the National Health Service. So if Cameron has open house one day, he could find it very hard to ban cameras the next day. That is why I mentioned self discipline.

If a politician, public figure or celebrity has never ever exploited his or her family for publicity purposes, never even been prepared to answer a question about their partners or children, if their homes really are private places -- if they have never done a deal with celebrity magazines like Hello or OK -- then their privacy does deserve and often does get -- a far greater degree of respect. When confronting personalities who jealously guard their privacy -- and who will defend it in the courts if necessary -- newspapers and magazines have to tread more carefully.

And while there is this insatiable appetite for celebrity news -- and demand for ever more detail about people’s private lives -- I think many people out there, readers and viewers, do respect those personalities who do draw the line, who accept that they will be scrutinised in their public life but who make it abundantly clear they are not addicted to publicity for publicity’s sake. One real stumbling block when considering this whole issue of privacy is trying to determine what constitutes a public or private place. The distinction between the two is not always clear cut.

Yes of course our homes are private places and the courts have always supported that. But that still does not stop photographs being taken from outside, in the road or from a footpath.

Another problem arises if we hold a party not in the privacy of our homes but in a hotel or restaurant. Is that still a private occasion? Clearly the entrances to such venue and even public areas inside them are fair game for photographers, be they professional or amateur. And this helps to explain why the boundaries of privacy keep getting pushed back further and further. So great is the market for an endless supply of personality pictures for the tabloid press and celebrity magazines that we have what in effect is a free for all. Paparazzi and celebrity watchers armed with their own cameras and mobile phones do daily battle, hoping to snatch a picture that will then be snapped up by the agencies and which if used by the tabloids and the magazines could make thousands of pounds.

Even the guests can be tempted to take a mobile phone picture and then make a quick buck. In fashionable London, it is like a push-and-shove gold rush: during the day the snappers are on the hunt outside shops like Harrods, the designer boutiques and restaurants; in the early evening the action moves to West End theatre land and the stage door; then the night watch, outside restaurants and night clubs. There are no rules and regulations, just push and shove, although celebrities are beginning to fight back and are winning cases in the courts about the harassment that went too far. There are no easy answers when it comes to trying to the draw the line on intrusive behaviour, not least because newspapers in the United Kingdom are self-regulated.

Successive governments have huffed and puffed but drawn back from legislating on press standards. That task is the responsibility of the Press Complaints Commission which is funded by the newspaper industry. It claims to be having an effect, it says that it is tackling more and more complaints of intrusion by journalists. But we only have to peruse the Commission’s code of practice to see why the free-for-all will continue.

The code is quite clear about privacy: Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence…It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in a private place without their consent". That could not be clearer. But then you have to look at the red star beside that part of the code. Over the page is the get out which says: "There may be exceptions to the clauses marked with a star where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest". So there you have it: in effect any picture can be used if the editor thinks publication is in the public interest.

That was the justification for the Sun’s front page splash: "Harry The Nazi" and its exclusive picture of Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi soldier, with a Swastika on his arm, snapped at a private fancy dress party (Sun, 13.1.2005). A party goer sold the mobile phone snap to the Sun for £12,000 and the paper made hundreds of thousands selling it around the world.

Look at the case of the Daily Mirror and its exclusive mobile phone shot of "Cocaine Kate" -- the supermodel Kate Moss snorting "line after line". (Daily Mirror, 15.9.2005) Again the justification for using this picture -- clearly taken a private party -- was that its publication was in the public interest. What was so significant about those two exclusives was that they won the top prizes at the British press awards. Journalists voted the Sun’s "Harry the Nazi", the front page of the year and the Daily Mirror’s "Cocaine Kate", the scoop of the year. Similarly the News of the World the year before was voted newspaper of the year for its exclusives about the tangled love lives of the footballer David Beckham and the former England manager Sven Goran Erikson.

Look at what can be earned: for her kiss and tell about Beckham, Rebecca Loos collected a million pounds in newspaper and television fees. This is the media maelstrom which public figures inhabit. If you think the British newspapers are going to put their own house in order think again; if you hope the British government will try to tame the British newspapers, that is also wishful thinking. No, I believe the only way forward is for public figures to realise they will get public sympathy -- and support in the courts -- if they try to discipline themselves and if do not get addicted to the lure of publicity. Once they have a record of manipulating the media, they lose the protection they might subsequently crave. Equally I think a debate like this does help raise public awareness.

Media standards are influenced by public opinion, broadcasters like the BBC do try to lead the way, and it is up to all of us who are concerned about media irresponsibility to raise our voices and speak out.