Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Phone-hacking saga: public and private lives

(c) World Economic Forum/Photo by Andy Mettler 

Following further claims the other day of the dubious practices employed by News International, this article is going to focus on ideas of the public and private and what it means in terms of the ongoing phone-hacking furore.

The recent revelations of the hacking of the Dowler family’s mobile phones have rightly led to widespread revulsion. Their otherwise private world, only subject to media interest due to tragedy, has sparked wider press and public attention.

The phone-hacking scandal has been running since early 2006, when Prince William and some of his aides and contacts suspected that their phone messages had been intercepted. Clive Goodman, the then Royal Editor of the News of the World, subsequently reported on the Prince’s knee injury and his plans to edit his gap-year videos and DVDs together to make a home movie. Riveting. Since then, we know that there have been approximately 4000 victims of phone hacking, including celebrities, politicians, sportsmen, and members of the public.

As this story has only recently erupted because of the Dowler family’s involvement, this calls into question at what point we, the British public, think that it’s reasonable to intrude into the private lives of those in the public eye. Do they have a right to a private life? Are any details of the private lives of the rich and famous in the public interest? Or is it merely that the public is interested in the lives of the rich and famous?

 "This story is so old and boring. Where does it take anybody? Newspapers will seek out information from whatever sources they can, until newspapers close down. I don't think it does us any damage. It's a bit of a non-story."

(c) Gene Hunt
The above quotation, comes from a Scotland Yard source in response to a story in The Guardian in September last year. This suggests that although the act of phone-hacking is in itself illegal, that institutionally, The Met considers it quasi-illegal and only one of a number of questionable ways that the press go about their business. For instance, many celebrities complain of being “papped”. When being “papped”, they may be in a public space, or sometimes not, but either way they are denied a right to privacy in return for a “story”. Should this be legal?

Over the last couple of decades or so, we have witnessed the dramatic growth of celebrity culture.  From the likes of Hello and OK magazines to reality TV programmes such as Big Brother, we have consumed ideas of celebrity and begat more celebrities. Our desire for celebrity has seen a blurring between the private and the public. Public, famous people have let us into their houses to gawp at their personal wedding photos and private, less famous people have allowed us to watch them shower and go to bed in public. 

The printed press, who are in the business of selling newspapers, have reacted to this ever-growing demand. Take a look at the online front pages of today’s popular newspapers including The SunThe Mirror and Daily Mail, and in amongst some news, you will still find all you might desire on the latest celebrity stories. With celebrity culture as it is, the printed press have embarked on maximising their profits by using and abusing it. The press will do whatever they can to get a "story” and do not care who gets in the way.

By engaging in these activities, we have contributed to an insatiable demand for stories relating to the public and private lives of those who appear in the news. And this is where we, the British public, are accountable. We have led the media to believe that this is all that we are interested in. Like the relationship between a dealer and addict, they believe that we crave as much information on the private lives of those in the news, knowing that we will happily gorge on it and come back for more. In our droves, we buy the newspapers and magazines that contain these "stories" and we watch the TV programmes that create more interest in celebrity. In conjunction with the media, we have constructed modern celebrity culture and created the climate for suspect media practices to exist.

I am not saying that we should not be interested in the lives of celebrities, sports people, film and TV stars, or politicians. On certain occasions, intruding into the private lives of public figures is in the public interest (e.g. David Cameron’s dinner parties with senior News International executives). However, regardless of the arguments over whether celebrities use the press or not to further their own interests, we have the power to decide whether to buy into it. Put simply, we can shut the media up by not buying their particular paper or magazine and not watching particular TV programmes. We can further change this, so that we do not unwittingly harm the lives of those who have been caught in the public glare. I shall be launching a Facebook campaign, asking those of you who follow me there, on this blog, or on Twitter, to impose a celebrity “fast” on yourselves. Further details will follow.

Due to the indistinct borders between the public and private, and spiralling celebrity culture, we seem to find it hard to gauge exactly what it is that we should know about the private lives of families and individuals. Consequently, in our quest to know all we can of those in the news, the media do all that they can to provide us with that information, and people get hurt. It is not just the media, the organisations that own them or The Met that are culpable for recent events. It is us too.   
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