The term “public figure” covers a relatively large spectrum of people who share the commonality of being widely known. This can range from those who play a recognizably important role in shaping society, such as politicians or CEOs, to celebrities who attract or court media attention; a public figure then could simply be described as a person who is known by a large mass of a given populous. Most public figures will utilize the media to get a message across to the public which helps further an agenda, thus the power public figures wield in shaping public opinions and perceptions is potentially huge. The media, in its role not only as broadcaster but also as watchdog, claims that information about the private lives of such publics figures should be published as it is in the public interest given the power they have. Public figures argue that while investigation into their public work is fine, they still deserve the right to privacy in their private lives extended to everyone else.
The extent to which the media are legally free to investigate and publish details of public figures’ private lives varies from country to country. For example, France is much stricter on protecting personal privacy than Britain is. The debate has recently been given additional importance by the development of Human Rights law within Europe, as privacy is now classed as a right under the European Convention of Human Rights, as well as by political scandals in many countries which have highlighted the need to scrutinize public figures’ behavior much more closely. However the extent of intrusion by media organizations also needs to be assessed, as is demonstrated by the closure of the UK newspaper News of the World in 2011 when the practice of phone hacking was revealed to be in practice not only in relation to celebrities but also politicians, victims of terrorism and the presumed missing then found dead phone of 13 year old Milly Dowler. Should then the private lives of public figures be fully scrutinized or should the right to privacy trump the freedom of the press?
All people that are considered public figures have, to one degree or another, the power to affect society; be it in an overt way via politics or economics or more subtly via changing peoples’ perceptions of the world. These people need to held to account and the media is the most effective way of doing this as normal people do not have the time or resources to scrutinize everything pubic figures are doing whereas the media can. If the private lives of public figures are conflicting with their actual public persona it is in the wider interest to reveal this. For example, in 2009 during the UK’s “MPs expenses scandal” it was revealed that some MPs, whose responsibility it is to create and review laws, were breaking their own tax laws in their private lives. This clearly demonstrates a misuse of their position and deserves to be known. Another such example can be seen with golfer Tiger Woods who was seen to represent excellence and determination in sport and most importantly was presented as an ideal clean-cut role model. However this image was found to be a sham when stories into his private life revealed he was unfaithful to his wife and he subsequently admitted to numerous affairs. This came to light as a direct result of media reporting into his turbulent private life and it is in the public interest to know such information due to both the power he and others wield as public icons and the money generated from their public image.
Of course people need to be held to account and in some cases the publication of the private affairs of public figures can be justified. However, on the whole, most reporting into the private lives of public figures is simply gossip which the public has no need to know and is holding no-one to account. Instead it is often simply being used to sell media products. There are hundreds of examples which could be cited of such intrusion, often involving actors/actresses and models which offer no real justification at all as to why they were printed. Printing stories about celebrities on holiday for example is not holding them to account or benefiting society in an actively positive way.
This can also extend to those in more traditional power roles. Is it in the public interest to know all the details about the private lives of politicians and CEOs if what is being reported does not have a direct effect on their role? For example Max Mosley, the now ex-president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), a group which not only represents the interests of motoring organizations but is also the governing body for Formula One, was exposed in 2008 by the now defunct News of the World newspaper as being involved in a sadomasochistic sex act which involved several female prostitutes. The reporting of this was unnecessary as the event did not have a direct effect on his running of the FIA and was therefore not in the public interest. Mosley took the case to the UK High Court claiming infringement of his private life and the court found in his favor.
Newspapers are simply publishing the kind of stories the public want to read, it is no accident that the best-selling newspapers in the UK are the tabloids which regularly publish stories into the private lives of celebrities and that some of the highest rating news shows in the US are loaded with celebrity gossip. The News of the World, which pushed the boundaries of intrusion right up to its closure in 2011, was consistently Britain’s most-read newspaper. When you enter a career which is in the public domain, in particular those such as acting, which often requires courting the media to gain publicity, it is well known that intrusion into your private life may occur. It could even be argued that by entering such a profession you agree to forfeit your right to privacy as a condition of entry. Thereafter, when success has been gained via manipulating the press it is hypocritical to complain of “press intrusion”. Celebrities should not bemoan the media for simply providing information that the public wish to read.
By creating celebrities in the first place the media is often creating artificial demand for such stories; it is too simplistic to suggest that such stories are what the public wants in light of this. There will, however, always be a fascination in learning intimate details about the lives of the powerful and famous, but this should not be a reason to deny public figures the right to privacy that the rest of us enjoy. The media likes to portray itself as an important pillar in society and democracy, and while in some respects it is, by undermining the law by disregarding the right to privacy the newspapers are in fact damaging their own justification for their existence. The argument that many celebrities have courted the media for their fame is a misnomer, it can often be a bi-product of their career, why should their lives be necessarily punished via having their private lives scrutinized by the public just because it’s what the public may want?
No clear dividing line can be drawn between public and private behavior; drawing up rules would be arbitrary and would prevent some corrupt, dubious or dishonest behavior from being exposed. For example, President Mitterrand of France hid his cancer from the French electorate for years. Was this a public or a private matter? He also had a mistress and illegitimate daughter, who were secretly taken on some of his foreign visits at state expense. Again, is this a private or a public matter? The creation of solid distinctions would undermine the power of the press to carry out its watchdog role because in a scenario where such strict rules existed something in the public interest could be transpiring in the private lives of public figures and the media powerless to report it.
Much media reporting of private lives is not being done under a watchdog mandate but rather to simply titillate the audience with gossip which is unnecessary for the public to know. Having distinct rules as to what can and cannot be reported is important to protect the lives of public figures who are entitled to the same rights as everyone else. Such firm distinctions between what is public and private and what can and cannot be reported will of course on occasion limit the press from unveiling a story which may be very important for the world to know about. However, on the whole, what such regulation would do is ensure that the vast majority of reporting which is of no use to the public and is being published at the detriment of someone’s private life is severely restricted, if not eliminated. This is the ethical thing to do as it ensures that the right to privacy is universal.
Many public figures achieve celebrity status largely by mistake; it is a by-product of their pursuit of success in their particular field. For example, most professional footballers when young simply wanted to become the best player they could be, at the highest level they could reach. As Tottenham Hotspur Football Club defender Benoit Assou-Ekotto has stated, he had no desire to end up in an office job he wasn’t suited to so football became the means to ensure he could live out his life comfortably. Expelled from school, he assumed the profession he was naturally good at, just as a natural mathematician goes into engineering. They do not wish to be “role models” and claim no special moral status, so why should their private lives be subjected to such public scrutiny? Individuals who happen to be public figures still deserve the same rights to privacy as the rest of us; simply because they may have a degree of fame does not make them fair-game.
Whether or not a public figure has chosen to be a role model, once they become one then they have a moral duty to society to ensure they represent all the things a good role model should. While a footballer may just want to be a footballer and simply reach the highest level in the game, they have to accept that people at the top of the sport are necessarily role models and it comes with the territory. In addition to this, many sporting personalities and others in different fields go on to promote organizations, either for charitable reasons or huge fees. If their behavior contradicts the message they are promoting the public has a right to know this as it is a case of deceiving the public. Being a public figure in any of its guises should be seen as a special exception to the privacy law as their success is founded on communicating though the media in one sense or another.
Continual probing into the private lives of public figures actually harms the functioning of democracy. Very few potential political candidates, for example, will have entirely spotless private lives, free from embarrassing indiscretions committed while young and irresponsible. The prospect of fierce and unforgiving press scrutiny will thus deter many from seeking public office and deny their talents to the public good. Those who do present themselves for election will therefore tend to be rather unrepresentative individuals of a puritanical nature, whose views on sex, family life, drugs to name but a few may be skewed and intolerant as a result. The sex scandals of Elliott Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, to use just New York politicians, are not therefore representative of New York as a whole, but rather a system that is only attractive to those who believe in their own invincibility and potentially lack the necessary humility to truly represent their constituents.
Many politicians in their campaigns make an explicit or implicit point out of emphasizing their family values and other aspects of their “private” life, for example by being photographed with their loyal family and through taking a stance on such issues as divorce, single mothers, sex education or drugs. If the public image such people seek to create is at variance with their own practices, such hypocrisy deserves to be exposed. This would not be to the detriment of democracy but in fact may improve it as it would encourage future politicians to ensure that they live by what they preach, rather than cynically trying to manipulate the media into creating a false image of who they are only for it to be fatally undermined by their own actions.
Pursuing stories regarding the lives of public figures could be putting the health of the person being pursued and their families lives in danger. The most extreme and infamous case of this would most arguably be the events which are said to have contributed to the untimely death of Princess Diana, whereby her car crashed into the wall of a tunnel having been pursued by tabloid journalists and paparazzi seeking an ultimately trivial story. While this was an extraordinary event it does show the extent to which journalists have been known to pursue public figures for a story which undoubtedly places stress on the targets and their families lives which could leave to both health issues and psychological distress.
As previously stated upon entering a profession which involves being in the public limelight one should expect to be put under such stresses. If you are publicly known, there will be a demand for information about you and the media is simply obtaining stories which their readership wish to consume. The Diana example was, as the opposition argument expresses, an extraordinary case; one which is extremely rare and from which lessons have been learnt. However there are codes of ethics which all journalists sign up to which contain caveats to ensure that physical and mental harm is kept to a minimum if in existence at all. While on occasion a journalist can fail to live up-to these ethics they are, on the whole, well adhered to and in those instances when not, professional sanctions often take place to minimize such an issue from occurring again.
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