Mdia 2301: Media Policy and Media Law Research Essay

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Amy Cooper, a1210209, Sneaky Dawggers Question 3

MDIA 2301: Media Policy and Media Law

Research Essay

Amy Cooper, a1210209, Sneaky Dawggers Team.

Question 3: Celebrities and people in public office owe their popularity and public profile to the media. In July 2011 News of the World shut its doors to the world because of phone hacking scandals. Discuss some of the visible and invisible lines between the publics right to know and people’s right to privacy.

Word Count: 1989 words

Whilst it is largely subjective what level of privacy those in the public eye should be granted by the media, an objective approach towards both the legal and ethical perspectives that cloud this issue needs to be taken. After the British newspaper News of the World closed down in July 2011 following a well-documented phone hacking scandal, the legal and ethical issues surrounding the visible and invisible lines between the public’s right to know and people’s right to privacy engulfed not only the News Limited corporation, but the media profession as a whole. This essay explores how privacy is protected in Australia both by law and from an individual perspective, whilst endeavouring to discern what level of privacy those in the public eye deserve with reference to theories of ethics. This essay also examines the extent to which the public has a right to know the activities of those in the public eye and the ethical consideration that should be given to one’s privacy, even if information is accessed through legal channels.

Privacy laws, both in Australia and overseas, do not differentiate for individuals on a professional basis. Currently no formal right to privacy exists in Australia and thus it is a contested issue how much privacy is deserved by individuals, and one that is decided based on convention, ethics and also through the interpretation of other laws. The modern conception of privacy focuses on its social value, and the notion that individuals should be protected from the social control of others (Breit, 2011). Personal privacy is integral to forming both relationships (Breit, 2011) but also identity, with privacy enabling control over our personal information (Decew, 2002). Measures are employed by individuals and those in the public eye alike to regulate the exchange of personal information and social interactions (Breit, 2011), for example through not having a listed phone number or having a tall fence.
Since the News of the World scandal came to a head in July 2011, privacy concerns have returned to the national agenda, with the Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information, the Hon Brendan O’Connor, announcing a round of public consultations on privacy issues in an effort to establish whether Australia should introduce a statutory cause of action for serious privacy invasions (Christie, 2012). Privacy in Australia is currently afforded protection through a variety of legal and non-legal rules and conventions (Breit, 2011). There has been much debate over whether a tort of invasion of privacy exists in Australia but regardless of this various dimensions of privacy are protected in some ways by present legislation. For example, the torts of trespass and nuisance protect our physical privacy whilst telecommunications and broadcasting legislation contain measures to maintain the privacy of information (Breit, 2011). The News of the World scandal has undoubtedly altered the public perception of the media profession, and in light of it I would suggest that further privacy protection is needed, with journalistic self-regulatory codes alone incompetent in ensuring privacy. This in mind, journalists should not sacrifice their professional integrity in pursuit of a story and need to navigate the modern privacy landscape with full consideration to relevant codes, practices and legislations.
Discerning what level of privacy those in the public eye deserve is quite subjective and differs between both people and media institutions. It is the role of media professionals to establish what level of privacy those in the public eye deserve through the framework of our legal system but also with consideration to their own moral compass. Deontological theories of ethics, whereby a decision is right when it adheres to the relevant principles, laws, responsibilities and codes (Spence and Van Heekeren, 2005) are particularly pertinent to establishing what level of privacy those in the public eye deserve. In particular, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, whereby moral requirements are based on a standard of rationality (Johnson, 2010) focuses on intentions and motives, and although it may ignore emotional considerations, this approach promotes impartiality and ensures logical consistency (Breit, 2011). In contrast, ethical theories based on consequence suggest an action’s ethical value is based on a positive result (Breit, 2011). These differing theories are reflective of the differing ethical perspectives of those in the media profession. Whilst a consequentalist will determine their decisions were moral on the basis of a good outcome, deontologists have less regard for a story’s consequence but value compliance with laws, regulations and conventions in the search for a story.
Privacy, for both individuals and those in the public eye alike, is considered by some to be a dangerous myth, particularly given the current prevalence of social media (Hencke, 2011). While many of us voluntarily offer up personal information through the way of social networking platforms, even those who don’t indulge in these services can still be found online (Hencke, 2011). The interactive media environment has dramatically altered the privacy landscape for the modern era, with modern technology allowing personal information to be collected and managed in dramatically different ways to that experienced by pervious generations (Woo, 2006). It is no longer simply those with a public profile whose private information can be easily sought out by interested parties. Balancing individual rights to privacy with the need for a free press is a difficult task, and thus organisations should employ information governance to guarantee a consistent approach to complying with proper practice and legislation and also to ensure that organisations take care of information in their possession that may be of a sensitive nature (Small, 2011).
The right of the public to know the activities of those in the public eye is largely an ethical issue. For both celebrities and politicians alike, the media plays an integral role in making (and often breaking) someone’s career and in defining their reputation and values to the public. Both celebrities and those in public office are also instrumental in building their own public profile, through granting interviews with the media and sharing certain facets of their lives through their own websites or social media pages. Some might conclude that those who have actively courted media attention for their own personal gain are less deserving of the same level of privacy than those who have shied away from a public profile.
It is not only the responsibility of media professionals to establish a level of privacy deserved by those in the public eye, but the consumers to look towards their own moral compass in deciding what content they desire from the media. As a society, we have an obsession with celebrity news, with gossip a commodity in the media industry. The highly successful gossip website (which has since expanded into television) TMZ has staff running round-the-clock surveillance, live streaming feeds and constant posts from events such as the wedding of Jay-Z and Beyonce, an item which may not be considered news worthy by some, but is the kind of content craved by the sites 10.9 million unique users (Petersen, 2010).
The pursuit of a story is highly competitive particularly given the immediacy now granted by the Internet. While the phone hacking activity employed by staff at News of the World was undoubtedly crossing a visible legal line, the legality of down-and-dirty tactics presents more of an ethical issue. In 2009, a photo of battered singer Rihanna, likely taken as part of the Los Angeles Police Department investigation and therefore not intended for publication, was leaked to TMZ. While exploiting sources to secure a story is morally questionable, TMZ’s staff are required to sign binding agreements to ‘obey all laws in pursuit of a story’ (Puente, 2008) and whilst some stories they run may be questionable when considering public interest, legal conformity allows TMZ to maintain journalistic integrity, even if some consumers do not feel its content to be of a high standard. The enormous public response to the illegality at the heart of the News of the World scandal has highlighted that issues of content, responsibility and ethical behaviour are crucial to the media industry’s ability to retain the public’s trust and remain a legitimate news source (Freedman, 2010).
As previously mentioned, whilst legislation can protect an individual’s privacy, it can also ensure and safeguard the public’s right to know and access certain information. The freedom of information and information privacy laws that currently exist at both state and Commonwealth level ensure our right to access information and also act to regulate government-held information and private organisations (Breit, 2011) ensuring transparency and accountability in government. This in mind, just because someone holds a public office does not necessarily suggest their personal lives should be an open book. Channel Seven was embroiled in controversy in 2010 when they broadcast a story regarding the resignation of New South Wales Transport Minister David Campbell after using his ministerial vehicle to get to a gay sex club. Whilst the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) ultimately found that the network had not breached the code of practice, it was alleged that, contrary to cl 4.3.5, Channel Seven had broadcast material relating to a person’s private affairs without any public interest justification (Breit, 2011). Whilst public interest was identified in the David Campbell case on the basis of the misuse of his ministerial vehicle, it is the role of media professionals to be able to publish or broadcast stories that can withstand scrutiny and clearly express the public interest when it comes to disclosing what is otherwise private information (Breit, 2011). It is also significant to note a lack of a clear definition when it comes to public interest, with public interest largely differing from individual to individual on the basis of interests, values and cultural beliefs (Morrison and Svennevig, 2007).
Hencke suggests that while we should be outraged when people’s details are accessed through illicit means, the notion that anyone has complete privacy is outdated (2011). In questioning whether accessing someone’s personal information through legal means is still ethical, there are many conflicting opinions. Deontologists would believe that so long as information is accessed through the appropriate channels ethical integrity is intact, whilst consequentialists would assert that an ethically sound decision rests on the outcome. The most fitting approach in order to successfully navigate the invisible and visible lines that surround the balance between people’s right to know and privacy rights would be a combination of the two, with media practitioners ensuring their professional activities are consistent with the relevant laws and conventions in place whilst also giving consideration to the positive and negative consequences to a potential story and balancing public interest in the issue with the subject’s personal privacy.
The News of the World scandal was one of the biggest stories of 2011 and the repercussions of the illegal activity of some News Limited employees working at the controversial paper continues to make headlines in 2012. The scandal and the legal and ethical questions it raises bears significance to the general public, those in the public eye and media professionals alike. My research suggests that in this modern age, complete and total privacy is somewhat of a myth and it is the responsibility of individuals to employ measures to ensure the protection of their personal information. That is not to suggest we are afforded no protection of personal privacy, with legislation, self-regulation and convention working together to protect some facets of our personal lives. Defining both public interest and privacy is quite subjective and differs on an individual basis, whilst deontological and consequential theory approaches also highlight how media professionals tackle these issues from vastly different angles based on their own moral grounding. In order to strike a successful balance between the public’s right to know and people’s rights to privacy, even if information is accessed through legal channels, media practitioners need to consider the appropriate legislation and practices in place whilst also taking account of the potential consequences of their actions.

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Decew, J., 2002. Privacy [online] in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (summer edn) ed E N Zalta. Available from:
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Woo, J. 2006. The right not to be identified: privacy and anonymity in the interactive media environment. New Media & Society, 8 (6), 949-967.

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