Privacy In The Media

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A-level Media Studies By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: A-level Media Studies
Last updated: 02/02/2017
Tags: ethics, media studies

The boundaries of what is considered to be ‘private’ are susceptible to social and cultural change but as a concept, privacy remains fairly constant and the loss of it would be dramatic. As Sanders writes, “without it…the spiritual and emotional intimacies which enrich our lives would vanish”(Sanders, 2003, p.80). This essay will consider various ethical theories in the context of real-life journalism and discuss where the problems lie within current ethical guidelines on privacy, particularly those of the Press Complaint’s Commission.

The question highlights two important variables that have significant implications regarding the concept of privacy. Firstly, the individual whose privacy is in question, and secondly, the type of information for which the privacy is sought. The first is important because who we are may affect the amount of privacy we can reasonably expect to have (Belsey, 1992), and is therefore a crucial ethical consideration. The second is important not only because some types of information are more sensitive than others (and therefore may be more ethically sensitive), but further, the type of private information in question may have a bearing on the way in which it is discovered. As Archard (1998) states, there is a difference between publishing something that is private and using illicit means to uncover what is private. For example, information about an affair that is published following a loud conversation being overheard in a restaurant may have different ethical implications to medical information published following the use of subterfuge.

Privacy and the ‘ordinary person’
This will be covered first as it can be fairly easily dealt with from an ethical perspective. Belsey (1992) argues that private information about an unknown individual can only be published with their consent. From the point of view of various ethical perspectives, this does stand to reason. For example, imagine that a local newspaper reported that a woman from the village had been having an affair with the butcher (assume that both of these people are ‘ordinary’ and not in the public eye). Would Kant think it a good idea to create a universal rule that any affair should be published if the newspaper were to get wind of it? Unlikely. From a Utilitarian perspective, it is very unlikely that publication would lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Therefore, making public this very private information would certainly seem to rest on the unethical side. Of course, this is a fairly simplistic analysis but for the purposes of this research question, it serves the purpose well – the real ethical dilemmas occur when we look at people in the public eye:

Privacy and those in the ‘public eye’
The reasons why ethical decisions on invading privacy are far less clear-cut when someone is ‘in the public eye’ as opposed to an ‘ordinary person’, are numerous. However, simply put, those in the public eye are often seen as “fair game” because there is an assumption (though obviously, a rebuttable one) that we have a legitimate interest in their private lives. This is nothing new and, in theory at least, is a very good thing. Indeed, the ability and freedom to scrutinise those in public office - such as politicians – is one of the cornerstones of a modern democratic society and fulfils one of the purposes of a free press. However, in recent years this has become more complicated for two main reasons.

Firstly, as Sanders (op cit) notes, we have entered ‘the cult of celebrity’. Effectively this means that very often those “in the public eye” are not people whose transparent private lives would help to ensure a properly functioning democracy. However, this is complicated by the fact that celebrities rely on media attention to maintain and to further their careers. Perhaps with the idea that “any publicity is good publicity”, many ‘celebs’ have revealed all in gossip magazines. Referring back to the research question, this does not present an ethical dilemma - they have consented.

However, the danger is that once a celebrity agrees to disclose private information for publication, it is an easy step to assume that information contained without consent might also be acceptable. This is recognised in part by the Press Complaint’s Commission (PCC hereafter) in Clause 3(ii) of the Editor’s Codebook which states that “account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information”. More will be said about the PCC later on.

Secondly, advances in digital technology have meant that there are far more opportunities for privacy to be invaded. For example, with a standard mobile phone you can now take pictures and video content and then immediately upload it to the internet for the whole world to see. In essence, the accessibility of advancing technology has made it much easier to bring private information in to the public sphere, creating serious ethical dilemmas. This brings us appropriately to the first case study:

Phone-hacking at News of the World
A brief summary of events to date; In 2007, News of the World’s royal editor Clive Goodman was jailed for conspiracy to access phone messages left for royal aides. Later in 2009 the Guardian newspaper claimed that far from being a one-off event, a culture of widespread phone-hacking existed at the News of The World, with thousands of celebrities and politicians being targeted. Earlier this month the Metropolitan Police announced that they would be looking into new evidence following an article in the New York Times.

Clearly this unfolding story has serious implications as regards both parts of the research question – the privacy of phone conversations and the privacy of those in the public eye, whatever the information concerned. It is important to remember that ethics and law are two separate entities.

Therefore while phone-hacking is illegal in most cases (s1 Investigation of Regulatory Powers Act 2000 ), that is not necessary or sufficient to deem it unethical in all circumstances. Therefore, are there any ethical theories that would support it? Based on universal maxims, Immanuel Kant’s deontological approach to ethics can cause serious problems for journalists due to its inflexibility, and is very unlikely to support phone-hacking as ethically right. Kant’s Categorical Imperative states that one should “act only according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law for all rational beings” (Sanders, 2003, p19). Following this, engaging in phone-hacking would mean that you wished it be a universal law of nature, which seems incredibly doubtful.

Contrary to Kant’s ethical thinking based on duty, Utilitarianism can be described as a consequentialist theory where our moral behaviour is adjusted according to the perceived effects our actions. From the premise that humans seek pleasure and avoid pain, Jeremy Bentham stated that we should act in a way that seeks to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number (ibid). It is submitted that this theory could give ethical legitimacy to phone-hacking in certain situations. For example, if it were to lead to uncovering corruption in our political system, clearly there is an argument that this would create the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, even the perceived effect of uncovering corruption is unlikely to justify widespread phone-hacking on utilitarian grounds without some further conditions. This is because knowledge that carte blanche phone-hacking goes on is unlikely to cause the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In other words, there must be some reasonable expectation of the perceived effect. Without this there would be widespread mistrust as regards the media, which would be a negative consequence.

However, even if we acknowledge that in certain circumstances Utilitarian thinking would deem such behaviour to be ethically acceptable, serious problems remain. For example, how do we quantify the greatest happiness for the greatest number? A further complication to this is that in Mill’s development of Bentham he states that it is the quality of happiness that should be the determining principle (Norman, 1998, p97). We would therefore have to attempt to quantify not only the number of people involved but also the quality of their happiness that would be likely to stem from our action.

The Press Complaint’s Commission: The Editor’s Code
The biggest problem in attempting to justify phone-hacking based on consequentialist theory is that it tends to lead to “what if” scenarios. In other words, most people (apart perhaps from deontologists such as Kant) would probably agree that if gross hypocrisy or corruption were to be uncovered, then this would justify the journalist’s use of phone-hacking or other such techniques. But this often relies on hypothetical situations that cannot be known before the act takes place. If corruption is not uncovered then the act is ‘wrong’ but if it is, the act is ‘right’. Ethics should not be a gambling game.

Clause 10 of the Editor’s Code prohibits journalists from seeking to obtain private information through clandestine techniques. However, in realising the potential benefits of such techniques, Clause 10 allows for a public interest defence (as does Section 8 of the OFCOM Broadcasting Code). To some extent this defence, along with the PCC’s guidance on its use, does answer some of these concerns.

Firstly, the PCC has consistently ruled (Munro v Evening Standard: Report 54, 2001) that “fishing expeditions” – where clandestine methods are used simply on the off-chance of discovering some wrong-doing - are NOT in the public interest; there must be “reasonable grounds for the inquiry” (Editor’s Codebook, p54). To some extent this answers the problem of the Utilitarian approach set out above by denying the possibility of carte blanche phone-hacking. Secondly, in making a judgment the PCC will consider whether publication is genuinely in the public interest and whether the degree of intrusion was proportionate to the public interest served (ibid, p.29). This provision highlights that there is a difference between the ‘public interest’ and ‘what the public are interested in’ (Harcup, P.36). In view of this, the News of The World would find it even more difficult to justify such behaviour given that those targeted included celebrities and sports personalities many of whom it is argued, would fall into the latter category.

Read alongside other parts of the code, the rhetoric of the PCC seems to be quasi-Utilitarian in its approach, with talk of ‘the ends justifying the means’ (Editor’s Codebook, p53) and a focus on outcome. But the PCC’s code goes further with its reasonable expectation requirement and proportionality considerations. While this does go some way to improving the ethical decision-making process for those considering clandestine methods of news-gathering, it also creates its own problems. For example, while the “reasonable expectation” requirement is to be welcomed by journalists as it gives flexibility, its lack of rigidity also creates uncertainty. The problem this causes from an ethical perspective is that uncertainty about where the right/wrong boundary lies is likely to lead to unethical decision-making. What this requires then is a degree of ethical judgment from the individual. This would seem to add an Aristotelian element to the PCC’s ethical guidelines. For Aristotle, acting in the right way comes from demonstrating good character through virtues - habits reinforced by repetition that incline us to certain acts. His thinking gives an alternative to the inflexibility of deontological approaches yet includes a consequentialist dimension as possessing virtues involves “bringing about what the virtue indicates” (Sanders, op cit, p 34). The emphasis put on character over outcome or rule does give strength to this approach as it is flexible yet founded on unchanging principles. Despite it’s draw-backs (which will be shown discussed later), it seems fairly obvious that illegal phone-hacking is unlikely to be justified on the basis of virtue. Therefore it is clear that most ethical thinking (including that of the PCC) would not serve to justify the culture of phone-hacking alleged to have gone on at the News of The World.

While the phone-hacking alleged to have taken place at the News of The World would clearly not come under the defence of public interest, other examples of media subterfuge where private information is discovered have had more success.

When Ryan Parry exposed serious failings in Buckingham Palace security by gaining a job as a footman in 2003, few argued that his deception had not been in the public interest (Harcup, op cit, p36). However, when the story broke, much of the coverage focused on seemingly insignificant information such as pictures of the Queen’s tea-set and cereal in tupperware boxes. In other words, despite the premise of the deception and the overall outcome – exposing security failings – being in the public interest, was the majority of the coverage really about things the public were interested in? It could be argued – indeed, Parry does himself – that the juicy details serve a useful purpose by showing how close he really got, however, when asked if he could have left them out he said, “not in the real world” (ibid). Parry’s expose and the subsequent coverage therefore clearly demonstrate that while ethical thinking and the public interest are crucial, so too is commercial reality. As Sanders states (op cit, p.128), “The economic realities of the media business can be one of the greatest obstacles to ethical journalism”.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a weak ethical dilemma, but it could raise serious concerns for journalists. For example, imagine that Ryan Parry had not wanted to publish the juicy pictures from inside Buckingham Palace. He would know that publishing the pictures would mean success for the newspaper and for his career. But let us further imagine that Parry is trying to support three children as a single parent with all of the financial difficulty that could entail. If running the story in full he is able to make his career and put him on the path to financial security, does he not owe it to his children to do so? Here one may argue that Aristotle’s system of ethics based on good character is flawed. This is because in a real life example such as this, there are clearly competing virtues that would have to be reconciled, but without the wisdom of experience, how are we to know which decision to take? In other words, it is all well and good acknowledging that experience and wisdom play a part in our ability to make moral judgments, but the consequence is that ethical mistakes will certainly be made in gaining that wisdom.

While it is accepted that “what if” scenarios can cause problems when used to justify or contradict ethical theory, this example isn’t far from potential reality and highlights the simple fact that commercial reality can create real ethical dilemmas for journalists.

The principles discussed in this essay are equally applicable to all types of information, not just phone conversations or pictures of the interior of our home. As stated above, some types of information that would be considered ‘private’ are more sensitive than others. For example, a conversation may reveal a secret middle name that is embarrassing whereas medical records might give a very personal account of someone’s state of health.

However, from the perspective of ethical journalism it is submitted that it will often be more pressing to look at the methods used to uncover the information and the reasons for doing so rather than the ‘value’ of the information itself. As mentioned above there is a huge difference in receiving private information, perhaps through a trusted source, and using clandestine means to uncover the information yourself. The problem is that the flexibility in the public interest defence combined with what critics see as the PCC’s lack of authority to sanction those in the wrong, means that for many media organisations a “walk on the wild side is a commercially viable option (Marthoz, 2010, p24).

In the modern society we live in with all its technology and our close proximity to other human beings nearly 24/7, the chances of a conversation ever being truly private are fairly slim. In terms of other types of information such as medical records then the legitimate expectation of it remaining private is much higher, but for those in the public eye, this isn’t the case. Just recently, a private letter sent to the Prime Minister by Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox was leaked to the press.

Archard argues (in Sanders, op cit, p 86) that there is a trade-off between power/fame and privacy because of a need to maintain integrity and avoid hypocrisy. However, Sanders (op cit, p88) argues that the need to expose someone’s hypocrisy must be a matter of degree. In Sanders’ view it is possible to justify an invasion of privacy that uncovers gross hypocrisy. However, this does not answer the ethical implications of uncovering this information in the first place. Even those in the public eye that would be unlikely to be of real ‘public interest’ cannot expect to have their privacy respected at all times because of the dependency on the media to fuel their careers.

The real question seems to be, in what circumstances is it legitimate to bring private information in to the public domain. Deciding what is legitimate is really a question of public interest, which, although of great value as a conceptual idea, is certainly not without its flaws. As the PCC’s code demonstrates, no single ethical theory is likely to provide a comprehensive approach to ethical journalism. But if the media are to keep to their legitimate role as watch-dogs of democracy, there needs to be a much clearer sense of what is and is not a legitimate invasion of privacy.

Archard, D. (1998) ‘Privacy, the public interest and a prurient public,’ in M.Kieran (ed.)
Media Ethics. London: Routledge, p.82-96
Belsey, A. (1992) Ethical Issues in Journalism London: Routledge
Harcup, T. (2007) The Ethical Journalist Sage Publications
Keeble, R. (2001) Ethics for Journalists London: Routledge
Norman, R. (1998) The Moral Philosophers New York: OUP
Sanders, K (2003) Ethics and Journalism London: Sage Publications

Marthoz, J. (2010) “Calling to Account”, International Federation of Journalists, on-hacking- row-exposes- weakness-of- uk-press-complaints-commission- case-for- reform-is- unanswerable [10/09/10]
PCC Editor’s codebook, [10/09/10] poses-royal- footman.html [09/09/10]

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