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Privacy vs the right to know

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

Stephen Whittle, expert adviser to the Council of Europe and a Reuters Institute visiting fellow, gave a wide-ranging presentation in a recent Reuters Wednesday seminar discussing the British media landscape in terms of the privacy versus the right to know debate.Mr Whittle, who also served in the BBC as the Controller of Editorial Policy and has been involved in high profile BBC investigations including the Secret Policeman, said that the present scale of coverage of the private lives of celebrities and lay public is 'unprecedented'.
In the seminar titled Private Privacy Or the Public's Right To Know, Mr Whittle compiled a list of five 'classic defences' which the media usually put up as justifications in response to the public criticism of privacy intrusions. They are:
To reveal the 'hypocrisy of those in positions of power';
To uphold 'public accountability';
There exists an implied 'deal' between the media and the celebrities, who are willing to sell off their private lives for money and headlines;
As the celebrities have already sold off their private lives, it should be 'fair game' for the media to go further;
The celebrities failed in their jobs as 'role models' in society.
Whether these defences can help the media to escape the accusation of too much intrusion is often not a real issue in practice. As Mr Whittle pointed out, the law courts, both in London and Strasbourg, have recently passed judgments which have de facto shifted the balance towards private privacy rather than the public right to know. He quoted  the famous case of Naomi Campbell v. MGN Ltd, in which the House of Lords ruled that the Mirror, by disclosing the supermodel had received drug rehabilitation treatment, had breached the confidence towards Miss Campbell who should have enjoyed ‘legitimate privacy’.
Although the right to privacy is entrenched in the Human Rights Act, freedom of expression is also upheld under the same law. The two conflicting ideas mean that there is often a difficult balancing exercise. Mr Whittle believed that the expansion of privacy lawsuits in the United Kingdom was due to an increasing sensitivity of the public towards ‘where the private space begins and ends’.  He said the non-statutory Press Complaints Commission (PCC) had not answered people’s need for privacy.
Mr Whittle also pointed out that the progressive intervention by the court reflects the overwhelming public interest in the issue and he called for a ‘humane and human media that takes care of people and their lives.’