Privacy Vs Public Interest – where do journalists draw the line?

In today’s digital age, privacy is not what it used to be. The advent of social media sees individuals sharing so much of what they do and how they think via publically accessible channels, and as a consequence the boundaries between public and private communications are open to interpretation. It is this ambiguity that often results in journalists and other professional communicators reporting on matters that dance the fine line between being of public interest and being simply interesting to the public. Subsequently, the media is finding themselves infringing upon the privacy of individuals and exploiting rights to privacy by publicising personal information and dealings.

As put simply by US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in a landmark Harvard Law Review article “The Right to Privacy”, privacy is the ‘right to be left alone’. When considering privacy holistically as both an ethical and legal issue, there are a multitude of elements that it is comprised of. As such, there exists a variety of industry standards, ethical regulators, code(s) of conduct and enacted legislation that are in place to govern and mediate it.

The right to privacy – what ethical standards are in place to protect it?

The right to privacy has, across the span of the past century, been gradually recognised in almost every national constitution and in most international human rights treaties – including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 12) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 17).

As this right developed, so too did the restrictions placed upon the media regarding the extent to which it may report on the private lives of citizens. Self-regulatory bodies and code(s) of conduct such as the MEAA’s code of ethics play a vital role in ensuring journalist’s respect privacy throughout the reporting process by enforcing ethical standards upon subscribed journalist’s.

 Clause 11 of the code states a journalist must Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude”.

Clause 8 should also be noted as it specifies the manner in which journalists should conduct themselves so as to avoid unnecessarily infringing upon the rights of individuals – “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”.

This is furthered by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) who, in their own declaration of the Principles on the Conduct of Journalists, state The journalist shall use only fair methods to obtain news, photographs and documents”.

By strictly adhering to, and acquiring material in accordance with, these ethical standards, journalists greatly reduce the likelihood of unduly violating personal privacy.  

Journalism Exemption – Privacy Law

A journalist’s role is to tell the truth. In fulfilling this role by choosing to uncover and publicise the truth, a journalist may cause harm or damage to an individual’s reputation, career or family/personal relationships. With such a potential to impose severe consequential damage, journalist’s must ensure there is good reason for the information/truth to be broadcast to the wider community. As put by Louis Hodges in “The Journalist and Privacy”,“It is just for a journalist to violate the privacy of an individual only if information about that individual is of overriding public importance and the public need cannot be met by other means”.

Within Australian law, there is no statutory right to sue for a breach of privacy, there is however the Privacy Act (1988), which is the primary source of protection and regulation of Privacy within Australia. It simultaneously provides a remedy for individuals when personal information is mishandled whilst also providing an exemption for media organisations/journalists – allowing journalists to engage in acts and practices without restriction of, or adherence to, the Privacy Act.

This journalism exemption has raised many questions in relation to its broad scope and the significant freedom it gives to journalists and media organisations – there is discussion that whilst the exemption allows for freedom of the press, it also diminishes the right to privacy.

A case to consider

Despite ethical and legal regulations existing regarding privacy rights and the media, there still remain journalists and media organisations who choose to breach their subscribed standards by publishing content they deem to be of “public interest”, when realistically, it is simply interesting to the public. Hodges explained “The mere fact that the public is curious about private information or conduct ordinarily is not sufficient reason to obtain and publish it against the will of the person reported on”. Such was the case for former NSW Transport Minister David Campbell.

Mr Campbell quit his position after footage was obtained and broadcast by Channel Seven, showing him leaving a “gay sex club”, utilising his ministerial car to travel to and from the club’s location.

The reporter, Adam Walters, attempted to establish that the story was of public interest, claiming on ABC News Radio (21st May,2010) “This is about pretence. It’s about integrity. It’s about character”. Walters reiterated that the story was about the misuse of the ministerial car and hypocrisy of his actions considering he claimed to be a “family man”. However, it is within Mr Campbell’s rights to utilise the car for private purposes:

Cars and drivers may be used for official and private purposes… Office holders may drive themselves whenever they choose.

NSW Ministers’ Office Administration Handbook, December 2009

Whilst some may consider Campbell’s actions hypocritical, considering he presented himself as a family man, his private/personal decisions were not proved to have affected his public life, thus rendering the story unwarranted and not of “public interest” but simply interesting to the public. Adam Walters received staggering backlash for his unjustified reporting, with many agreeing that it failed on public interest and was broadcast simply to “out”  his sexuality. Cameron Murphy from the NSW Council for Civil Liberties said “This is essentially a private matter. It is a matter for him and for his family. It has got nothing to do with anybody else. No-one’s sexuality is a matter of public interest”.

Channel Seven and Adam Walters conducted and displayed their research in what could be considered unethical manner, whilst succeeding in telling the truth, they failed to respect Campbell’s right to privacy and unnecessarily exposed his sexuality to the wider public, causing irreparable damage to his career and reputation. Similar instances have occurred where a public figure’s private life has been broadcast to the public, Barnaby Joyce and his “affair scandal” being one such example.

Lessons learnt – what should a journalist be mindful of?

A journalist’s goal is to create and distribute information that is of public interest and informs citizens about an issue they hadn’t previously known of. In striving to achieve this goal, some journalist’s may choose to disregard the right to privacy and thus fail to adhere to certain code(s) of conduct and/or ethical regulators. In doing so, a journalist is likely to damage the reputation and personal life of an individual– as demonstrated in the case of David Campbell. By choosing to actively violate the privacy of a person, a journalist must be able to demonstrate an overriding public need to know the information shared. If this need cannot be established, a breach of privacy may be investigated by the journalist’s representative bodies. It is of utmost importance that all journalist’s conduct themselves in an ethical manner with respect to their subscribed standards, otherwise they are at great risk of permanently injuring others.

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