This House would allow celebrities to switch off the limelight

The case: Celebrity Privacy Register

Lord Justice Leveson, who is leading an inquiry into media ethics following the 2011 phone-hacking scandal in Britain, has raised the idea of a celebrity privacy register. This register would allow people who are under media scrutiny to register their wish to remain private. It would be backed by the threat of sanctions against media outlets violating the privacy of those who have registered.

The proposal met with support from some celebrity magazine editors present at the hearing. However, the idea was not received favourably by all. The editor of celebrity magazine OK!, Lisa Byrne, told the inquiry that the system would not work if all celebrities participated in it. The editor of Heat magazine, Lucie Cave, pointed out that such a register would help celebrities present themselves in way at odds with their private conduct, and that it was indeed in the public interest that such double standards are exposed. Speaking on the BBC, the chief executive officer of PR company Outside argued that the register would be “unworkable and impractical” and could harm magazines.

Sebastian Huempfer’s opinion

A privacy register is a bad idea for two reasons. First of all, it just won’t work. Like super-injunctions, the privacy register would not stop internet users from reporting and finding out about those who wish to remain private. Moreover, if it did work, such a register would be a bad thing. Lucie Cave is right: nobody has a right to commercialise their public image and have it protected by the state if it is totally at odds with their private behaviour. If I make money and take to the limelight claiming to have a quality that I demonstrably don’t have, then I’m lying. And responsible media have not only the right but an obligation to expose such lies. It is in the public interest that they do. I would hope that Lord Leveson’s remark was off-hand. If he meant what he said, he’s not only about to recommend a bad policy – he’s also shown that he does not understand how the media works, and should work, in the 21st century.

- Sebastian Huempfer

N.B. This debate will be subject to change once Lord Leveson publishes his report.

Read about the Celebrity privacy register and other similar case studies at Free Speech Debate

Title 
A right to privacy – even if you are famous
Point 

Just because somebody chooses to be an actor, singer or an entertainer of any kind does not mean that they lose their right to a private life. In the context of the UK (the Scope of the Leveson Enquiry) it’s worth mentioning that this right is guaranteed under both the Human Rights Act of 1998, which in turn is predicated on the European Convention of Human Rights[i].

The people who are having their private lives splayed over the tabloids and gossip magazines are not politicians or judges taking bribes, they are not police officers beating up suspects, they are not teachers offering grades in exchange for sexual favours or any other area of sensible journalistic investigation. They are people who happen to work in the entertainment industries and their lives are being interrupted for the sake of prurience and curiosity that has nothing to do with a meaningful news agenda.

If, as some of those mentioned in the introduction suggest, the worst that happens as a result of such a register is that celebrity magazines vanish, then the proposition is quite relaxed about that.

[i] Article 8 of the ECHR and the UK HRA (1998). Outlined here.

Counterpoint 

Article eight only applies to public bodies so, for the most part, the media are not affected. However, to tackle the more general point – celebrity, by its nature requires some surrender of privacy; presumably those who would sign such a register would still want the ‘good’ publicity but want approval over the ‘bad’ stuff. Once you start giving anyone copy approval over a supposedly free press, you might as shut it down. It has simply ceased to be free at that point.

Title 
Redressing the balance
Point 

Such a register would, presumably still allow reporting when there was a genuine public interest – just as is the case for any other member of the public[i]. Presumably in such a circumstance, judicial approval could be sought – a process considerably quicker and easier than grinding an apology out of a magazine or newspaper; let alone winning a libel case.

Putting the burden on publications to demonstrate that something was news rather than gossip would be of huge benefit not only to celebrities themselves but to those long-suffering consumers of British news who, whilst hating it, have had to plough through this dross as it makes its way from the pages of magazines into the public consciousness[ii].

So what if celebrities have double-standards? So do most people, none of who would appreciate that fact being pointed out on the front pages of the media.

[i] The Telegraph. Matthew Holehouse. “Leveson Inquiry: Judge suggests a ‘celebrity privacy registry’”. 18 January 2012.

[ii] The Guardian. Sam Delaney. “Will the Leveson inquiry kill celebrity magazines?” 26 December 2011.

Counterpoint 

It matters if celebrities have double standards when they present themselves as being whiter than white. Equally, as Prop points out, there are already laws on defamation, libel, slander, defamation, trespass and surveillance. It is difficult to see what the register would add to these. One of the points that Leveson has routinely ignored is that all of the issues that prompted the inquiry are already illegal; hence the arrest of the journalists and executives involved[i].

[i] BBCwebsite. Journalist arrested in computer hacking probe. 29 August 2012.

Title 
Making editor’s think twice
Point 

A paparazzo’s shot of a second or third rate celeb doing something stupid, or something perfectly sensible but just not in makeup – or clothes – makes for an easy page lead. Anything that makes editors pause and consider whether they have something that might actually pass for news might do a great deal to pull large chunks of the British media – along with the readers they claim to serve – out of the gutter.

In recent decades anything with ‘celebrity’ associations has been considered news as a sought of kneejerk reaction by editors. Even in the ‘quality’ press there’s still plenty of coverage of vacuous, self-absorbed, talentless individuals who are famous, mostly, for being famous.

The defence of many editors is that these individuals deliberately court the attention they receive, which is, no doubt, true. However, whether it’s a good idea to give it to them is something that ought to give editors pause for thought given the deforming impact it has on young people’s sense of ambition[i]. Anything that means that such a productive golden goose is just one signature away from being killed, might be enough to make them ask whether it is really worth it.

Nobody is suggesting that this will transform the media overnight but readers moving away from publications that focussed exclusively on celebrity gossip to publications that, while containing some, also have much more news and analysis of real world events and issues certainly couldn’t hurt levels of social and political engagement. The best way to encourage engagement is through education, which the media can provide.

[i] The Telegraph. Lucy Cockcroft. “Cult of Celebrity ‘is harming children”. 14 March 2008.

Counterpoint 

If this is going to come down to professional judgement on what is and isn’t news then editors of successful magazines and newspapers would seem to have rather more relevant experience than a High Court judge. One of the ironies of the whole process has been that the one group who took no responsibility for the various crimes of newspapers are the people who bought them; papers follow the whims of their readers, whether the middle class like it or not.

Title 
It simply won’t work in an internet age
Point 

Whatever one thinks about the morality of this idea – and Opposition believes it is an attack on free expression – the simple and compelling fact is that it won’t work. The super-injunctions[i] fiasco demonstrated that keeping information silent in an internet age is simply impossible when there is a keen public interest.

Whether Prop likes it or not, the public is interested in celebrity news, requiring newspapers to ignore what is happening in the blogosphere is asking them not to do their job. It would mean that the only people on the planet who couldn’t tweet celebrity gossip would be those hired to do so.

This is important because it’s effectively impossible to sue a blog or a twitter account so they can publish any old nonsense. The press by contrast are subject to the law and, as a result, rumours remain the stuff of fantasy until they appear in the media. Without that arbiter between truth and fantasy, a curious public might as well believe what some fantasist has posted on their website.

[i] Useful background on super-injunctions as the history leading up to them is here on the BBC site.

Counterpoint 

The response as simple as the point: Leveson wasn’t asked to create a regulatory framework for the Internet. The web is the papers’ problem, not Leveson’s.

Title 
It would allow for an entirely false image to be created
Point 

If celebrities were, in fact simply hard-working entertainment professionals who finished rehearsals and then returned to their private lives then the idea of protecting that privacy might make sense. The reality is that it just isn’t so. It is routine for celebrities to use their status to express opinions on political or social matters on which they have no expertise whatsoever – and expect the media to cover it. Whether it’s the modest but routine endorsing of political parties in the build-up to elections[i] to Paul McCartney on animal rights to Matt Damon on virtually everything – why are we listening to their opinions rather than, say, a professor of economics or ethics?

Equally, they expect coverage – and to be taken seriously – when announcing that the latest movie, or book or album is a masterpiece despite the panning it’s receiving from the critics.

It’s also questionable as to whether pop singer or movie star would count as quite the right career choice for someone looking for a quiet life[ii].

It would be interesting to see how many would sign-up to Leveson’s proposed list if it was a blanket ban on publicity. No coverage of charity events that happened to get a celeb along, no interviews with actors on economics or pop musicians on ethics.

[i] The Independent. Matilda Battersby and Thomas Mendelsohn. A who’s who of celebrity political endorsements.” 4 May 2010.

[ii] The Guardian. Owen Bowcott. “Media interest in celebrities’ lives is legitimate, European court rules.” 7 February 2012.

Counterpoint 

It would seem to be entirely up to the media if they chose to seek an interview with a celebrity about their latest movie – that is, after all, part of most actors’ job descriptions and part of the media’s duty to inform. That hardly seems relevant to whether it’s possible to publish a picture of them shouting at their kids.

Title 
It would allow for an entirely false image to be created
Point 

If celebrities were, in fact simply hard-working entertainment professionals who finished rehearsals and then returned to their private lives then the idea of protecting that privacy might make sense. The reality is that it just isn’t so. It is routine for celebrities to use their status to express opinions on political or social matters on which they have no expertise whatsoever – and expect the media to cover it. Whether it’s the modest but routine endorsing of political parties in the build-up to elections[i] to Paul McCartney on animal rights to Matt Damon on virtually everything – why are we listening to their opinions rather than, say, a professor of economics or ethics?

Equally, they expect coverage – and to be taken seriously – when announcing that the latest movie, or book or album is a masterpiece despite the panning it’s receiving from the critics.

It’s also questionable as to whether pop singer or movie star would count as quite the right career choice for someone looking for a quiet life[ii].

It would be interesting to see how many would sign-up to Leveson’s proposed list if it was a blanket ban on publicity. No coverage of charity events that happened to get a celeb along, no interviews with actors on economics or pop musicians on ethics.

[i] The Independent. Matilda Battersby and Thomas Mendelsohn. A who’s who of celebrity political endorsements.” 4 May 2010.

[ii] The Guardian. Owen Bowcott. “Media interest in celebrities’ lives is legitimate, European court rules.” 7 February 2012.

Counterpoint 

It would seem to be entirely up to the media if they chose to seek an interview with a celebrity about their latest movie – that is, after all, part of most actors’ job descriptions and part of the media’s duty to inform. That hardly seems relevant to whether it’s possible to publish a picture of them shouting at their kids.

Title 
It sets a very dangerous precedent for controlling the output of the media – who is a celebrity?
Point 

What and who else should the media not be allowed to cover. By the same logic as banning the coverage of the private lives of those celebs that make a living out of publicity, why not the financial lives of those bankers who make their living out of money? There’s no doubt that it caused embarrassment and inconvenience to those concerned and the collapse of banks could have been reported perfectly well without mentioning the tens of millions made by their directors and traders.

When does someone become a celebrity and when do they cease to be. If a politician appears on “I’m a celebrity…” or “Celebrity Big Brother”, do they cease to be a politician?

Are the Hamiltons public figures or celebrities? Is Portillo? Is Galloway? Nadine Dorries is the latest sitting member of Parliament to take part in a reality TV show; in this case I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.[i] When actors become members of parliament is their previous life covered.

Perhaps most obviously if a comedian like Jimmy Carr whose material is often political turns out not to be paying his taxes what happens?[ii]

There are several differences between telling newspapers what they can and can’t cover in advance and establishing a regulatory framework for when they overstep the mark. An important one of those differences is that Leveson was asked to investigate the latter and not the former.

[i] Mulholland, Hélène, ‘Nadine Dorries to go ahead with TV show after learning of Tory suspension’, guardian.co.uk, 9 November 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/nov/09/nadine-dorries-tory-party-suspension

[ii] The Guardian. Rupert Sawyer. “Poor Jimmy Carr. Being a celebrity shouldn’t be taxing.” 22 June 2012.

Counterpoint 

There is a clear and demonstrable difference between the public right to know that their savings have been lost but the person who lost them walked off with £40m and seeing a picture that suggests an actress has put on five pounds. The first actually affects the real lives of real people, the second really doesn’t. As for blurred definitions, the NUJ’s own definition of a journalist would seem to work – wherever the person receives the majority of their earnings.

Bibliography 

Huempfer, Sebastian, ‘Celebrity privacy register’, Free Speech Debate, 20 February 2012, http://freespeechdebate.com/en/case/celebrity-privacy-register/

 

Battersby, Mathilda, and Mendelsohn, Thomas, ‘A who’s who of celebrity political endorsements’, 4 May 2010, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/a-whorsquos-who-of-celebrity-political-endorsements-1962049.html?action=Popup

BBC News, ‘Journalist arrested in computer hacking probe’, 29 August 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19409774

BBC News, ‘Are celebrities gagging the media more than ever?’, 20 April 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13145457

Bowcott, Owen, ‘Media interest in celebrities' lives is legitimate, European court rules’, The Guardian, 7 February 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/feb/07/media-interest-celebrities-european-court

Cockcroft, Lucy, ‘Cult of celebrity 'is harming children'’, The Telegraph, 14 March 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1581658/Cult-of-celebrity-is-harming-children.html

Delaney, Sam, ‘Will the Leveson inquiry kill celebrity magazines?’, The Guardian, 26 December 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/dec/26/leveson-inquiry-celebrity-magazines

Holehouse, Matthew, ‘Leveson Inquiry: Judge suggests a 'celebrity privacy register'’, The Telegraph, 18 January 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/leveson-inquiry/9022873/Leveson-Inquiry-Judge-suggests-a-celebrity-privacy-register.html

Liberty, ‘Article 8: Right to Respect for Private and Family Life’, accessed 9 November 2012, http://www.yourrights.org.uk/yourrights/the-human-rights-act/the-convention-rights/article-8-right-to-respect-for-private-and-family-life.html

Mulholland, Hélène, ‘Nadine Dorries to go ahead with TV show after learning of Tory suspension’, guardian.co.uk, 9 November 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/nov/09/nadine-dorries-tory-party-suspension

Sawyer, Rupert, ‘Poor Jimmy Carr. Being a celebrity shouldn't be taxing’, guardian.co.uk, 22 June 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/jun/22/jimmy-carr-taking

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