People, famous or not, have a right to privacy, which is a basic human right. Although some of them have voluntarily made themselves known to the world, they are still entitled to live a life without others following them all the time, eavesdropping on what they say and being under surveillance. However, in the case of politicians or other powerful people, the right to privacy comes into conflict with another right, the public’s right to know. The entitlement and the necessity to get informed are essential to guarantee democracy; this can only be achieved by the freedom of the press. Therefore the right to privacy of certain politicians sometimes has to be neglected to ensure a rightful running of our country. But do we need to get informed about everything there is?
We have to distinguish between famous people. Basically there are those who were seeking a public life – or at least knew to some extent what they were going into – and those who were not. Politicians, athletes, actors, musicians, entertainers and members of royalty belong to the former. The latter are ordinary citizens who become significant, because of their extraordinary experiences, for example victims of crimes or tragedies, but also criminals.
The amount of ordinary citizens who receive their celebrity status unwillingly is quite big and the privacy of those people needs to be especially respected and maintained. Names, addresses or pictures that could lead to the identification of a person should never be made public. It is not of interest for the readers, and it usually does not make a difference for them, what the name of someone is, but for the one concerned publication of identity could mean embarrassment and harassment. Suspected criminals, for instance, could lose their jobs, their families could break up or their whole lives could get destroyed, even when they are innocent. Apart from that, as soon as someone is well known, they are pursued and harassed by journalists demanding interviews. Also in cases where a family just had to experience the loss of a dear person, the press usually shows little respect for that.
While we tend to despise the way the press is treating ordinary people and feel the justification for their right to privacy, we have problems applying the same to people who were seeking a public role. In those cases we tend to think we have a right to the invasion of their privacy, since they have put themselves into the public eye on purpose. We demand to know about their personal lives, but we don’t see that this interest is only greediness for amusement.
The press is using this human phenomenon and is sacrificing individual privacy for the entertainment of a general public to increase the circulation of a paper. We are satisfying our voyeurism and we even claim that we have a right to it, but by that we submit ourselves to the tabloid values of a mainstream media and put that under the cover of public interest.
What is public interest? Journalists usually widen this term to use it as an excuse for all forms of reporting, in order to cover up every detail of one’s life. But public interest is not necessarily what the public is interested in, which is usually sex and crime; it is not what increases the circulation of a paper; it is not gossip. Public interest is the necessity to have access to essential information that allows us to keep a critical eye on our society. A person’s personal lives or gossip about it is not news and not of public interest. But unfortunately, reports about politicians’ sex lives are more popular than reports about someone’s policies and public actions.
The position of politicians in the eye of the public is especially difficult to judge. On the one hand politicians use their happy family and home in campaigns, on the other hand we know personal particulars and behaviour have nothing to do with competence in running a country and private details, even if completely irrelevant, can still ruin careers. Sometimes only due to the intrusion of privacy, corruption or similar crimes can be made public, but at the same time not everything in one’s life is connected to one’s office.
When personal morality and family values are deliberately used by politicians as a reason for them to be elected, they have chosen to make it a public issue rather than a private one. This is a sad fact, but it does not justify intrusion of the personal lives of all politicians. A politician still is, like everyone else, entitled to privacy.
Unfortunately, the press and the public seem to have grown bored covering politicians who aren’t celebrities and so personal gossip wins over public issues. Since their private lives are so closely observed, politicians are concentrating a lot on their image and consequently they have less time to spend on their actual job. This close scrutiny is not only humiliating, it also makes poor political performances more likely. If the public lost its big interest in private lives, political coverage and also politicians themselves would have to focus more on policies and actions. Everyone would have to stop making privacy an issue, which has no place in politics.
However, competence seems to count less and less nowadays and politicians are rather supposed to have a good character. People are inclined to think that one who betrays his wife also betrays his country, which generally not the case. But character is not determinable by personal behaviour and moreover there is no connection between private morality and someone’s ability to do a job well. Would we rather have a morally integer, but less competent person in power? A lot of good leaders of the past would probable fail today, for example Kennedy, who committed adultery, or Kreisky, who had a speech impediment. Many talented people do not manage to reach a high position today, because they have no blameless personal lives and many are kept from seeking a public office, because they fear the intrusion of privacy.
Politicians have to be observed in some respects. The press, being independent from any authorities, plays an important role in informing the public; it is the instrument that can expose corruption, wasting of taxes, hidden agendas or other crimes by examining actions and words of politicians. Naturally, there is no clear dividing line between public and private matter. Generally you can say, everything that has to do with the particular person’s profession has a public interest justification and can thus be reported about. Intrusion of privacy should only be allowed in cases where privacy is strongly connected to the public office. Any other information revealed, which is irrelevant to the politician’s skills and competence, is not irrelevant to the image one has of that person. It just prejudices people against them and this can clearly not be in the public interest. Watergate, for instance, was one example of a journalist revealing illegal political actions, but here only information connected with the person’s profession was made public.
Clinton’s sex-affair, however, was an example of going too far into privacy. People claimed the whole scandal was not about sex, but about committing perjury, which is not quite true. A perjury of Clinton about a land deal would have probable not interested as many, but this one was about sex, so the interest was enormous. Clinton was asked something he should have never been asked. Private questions – such as: “Have you ever committed adultery?” – ought definitely not be put to someone. Because if one refuses an answer to a query like that, it is a signal that there is something to hide. Since you hardly find someone who has never done anything wrong or illegal, it is especially unlikely to find a politician like that. Everyone knows they can’t admit little sins of their youth or sex affairs, because they know it would ruin their careers. So politicians have two possibilities when they are asked questions about their private lives: not answering, the same as admitting, or lying.
For celebrities, other than politicians, it is even more difficult to argue for their right to privacy, since so many of them use their status of being popular and seem to enjoy sharing private details and creating sensational news to stay well known or to make money. Publicity should be expected by them and loss of privacy is said to be the prize for fame. But does every skier, musician or actor really just want to be in the public eye? Is not also imaginable that a tennis player just loves to play tennis and detests being on television?
We can reduce those people to the fact that they are famous, but it would show little acknowledgement for their talents or abilities. After all, the celebrity status is in many cases just by-product of someone’s success in a particular field. Fame does not rob anyone the right to privacy and journalists go way too far for interviews or pictures of celebrities. Sometimes this has great consequence as in the case of Princess Diana, who died in a car accident after being chased by reporters.
We are all obsessed with privacy, protecting our own on the one hand, and invading other people’s privacy on the other hand. If people similar to us, ordinary people, get their privacy invaded, we are outraged. But someone different to us, someone famous, somehow has the duty to uncover everything there is. Since they have voluntarily thrown themselves into the public light, they now belong to the public. Political scandals have shown the need for close observation of public figures, especially if they have power, but in most cases we hypocritically claim to have a right to know about something that is actually none of our business. Privacy is classed as a right under the European Convention of Human Rights and it applies to everyone.