Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Privacy, Principles, And The Press

Freedom of the press keeps coming up in the news as the proprietors, journalists, photographers, and editors vie to see how far they can push the boundaries of the speech they create. Tonight I want to talk about how there appears to be different classes of privacy that apply to different people for legal reasons and what that means for freedom of speech.

Privacy is a right for all or for none

Last night I blogged about the conflict between privacy and freedom of the press. I could have tugged your heartstrings by reminding you about the UK phone-hacking scandal but that's too easy so I chose a more difficult angle: do celebrities have the right to behave badly in private?

Whether you want to admit it or not there's a very thin line between paparazzi, gossip rags, and drama trolls; once they smell blood they'll keep coming after you until they have utterly crushed you. This is why doxing is bad, this is why revenge porn is bad, this is why cyberbullying and stalking is bad; if you can't behave responsibly, sooner or later someone will try to make you, First Amendment and Bill of Rights be damned.

Even the evil have the right to privacy

Techdirt's Mike Masnick drew this to my attention on Twitter:
Can we now, in the same breath, congratulate Frank Armani for keeping schtum for his client's sake on principle while cheering on the violation of the privacy of celebrities or people involved in newsworthy events? Robert Garrow committed horrible crimes, yet he was entitled to privacy by law. Murder is newsworthy, people do have the right to know if some murderous freak is running around with malice aforethought, etc., because they need the information to keep themselves safe. However, there are very strict rules that govern the press reporting of criminal court proceedings.

What can we gain by commenting on the contents of a celebrity's underpants and what he (or she) gets up to with them if the activity is consensual? Why should a murderous freak have more of a right to privacy than a celebrity perve?

Speech must be free

All of the above begs the question, which speech is actually free? If the answer is, "All speech, even the most egregiously horrible," does that place any responsibility of the speakers to uphold the integrity of their speech by basically doing their best to keep it legal, decent, honest and truthful? Is there such a thing as the right to be a prat?

Privacy V free speech, redux

The minute we set a limit on the freedom of speech the path begins to slope downwards and becomes ever more slippery. If a sex tape or a salacious rumour is doing the rounds do we ban the publication thereof on pain of heavy fines, etc., in the name of protecting privacy, or do we try to take the moral high ground knowing that the red tops will be gleefully going nuts over them? While "Royal Babe Gets Baps Out On Holiday" isn't newsworthy, the paparazzo perched in a tree with his zoom lens extended (ahem!), willing to risk life and limb for a giggity pic is. I mean, what motivates this horrible desire to objectify and commodify a woman whose privilege ought to exempt her from such personal scrutiny? Might he be a danger to himself, to others, or perhaps even to her? Comparisons with Diana will of course be made and therefore column inches written. And it's the freedom to comment on what's happening that is at risk when we try to abridge the freedom of the press either by trying to make them less obnoxious or by striking gentlemen's agreements with them and asking them to behave nicely, please. There's that pesky ol' nuance again, worming its way back into my consciousness; it's easy enough to invoke privacy rights to stop the press (not to mention the internet) from commenting on your your personal choices but doing so risks stifling debate. The principle is bigger than the individual, in the end.

Approved, permitted speech

The trouble with supporting an unfettered press no matter what they do is that sooner or later there is pushback from individuals and groups they've offended. Better to encourage them to be more responsible in what they post, i.e. make sure it's actually true. That said, "responsibility" is a subjective notion and on campus in America the oppressed masses among the students have revolted against micro-aggressions and are making ever-crazier demands that include segregated spaces for {$group}. Needless to say there's an ever-changing list of accepted and rejected words that we have to be careful to say (or not, depending on which way the tide is turning). If that's not bad enough, well-meaning types in Europe are going after hate speech on the internet. Oh, that'll be fun to enforce. Many British right-wing rags like the Daily Express will come a-cropper over their migrant-bashing stories. Will Google be forced to promote counter-speech articles so that a search on "migrant + rape" doesn't bring up stories like this? It seems to be happening already.

screenshot of search results for "migrant + rape"
Click to enlarge

Mind you, the press has a lot of power over politicians so expect to see bloggers and twerps a-tweeting to fall afoul of the new directive while the most egregiously awful news outlets get away with what amounts to propaganda campaigns against "the foreigners."


Privacy for individuals and groups is essential to a healthy society. Where one kind of freedom (the right to privacy) impinges on another (the right to freedom of speech and expression) there's going to be conflict but we need to have a proper discussion about it instead of shouting at each other and being hysterical. I will, however, say that it seems dreadfully hypocritical to congratulate a lawyer for standing by the attorney-client privilege to effectively protect his client's privacy while clamouring for the opportunity to take a long, lingering look at a public figure's privates. While a more responsible attitude to what gets published is a noble goal it's essential to note that "responsible" is actually a very subjective concept and can easily be used as a tool of censorship. Ultimately there are no easy answers to this subject, only more questions, but that's not necessarily a bad thing as long as it keeps us talking about it.

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