The latest “debate” about media and privacy, triggered by last week’s television expose of NSW transport minister David Campbell leaving a gay club, is a sham conducted by people who are paid extremely well to legitimise something nasty and indefensible.
The reasons presented with faux-respectability by tabloid journalists, editors and owners for breaching personal privacy (“it’s in the public interest” … “the public’s right to know” … “tell the truth and let the cards fall where they may”, etc) are no more a pretext for real motives they can never reveal in public — ratings, circulation, profits, generating publicity for your brand, career progression, beating the competition, pleasing the boss and boasting in the pub.
They know it and their colleagues know it. But they can never admit it in public and rarely even acknowledge it in private because even they understand it is often immoral behaviour, and who wants to admit to that, even in private? So it gets wrapped up and justified behind a serious-sounding façade that purports to be about “the right to know” but is really about commercial self-interest and having fun at someone else’s expense.
The editorial culture of the organisations that routinely invade personal privacy — tabloid TV, certain newspapers and weekly “women’s” magazines — is aggressively, deliberately and explicitly led from the top. It is a culture that is constructed, in part, to invade privacy. It is a practice that sits at the heart of their editorial DNA. It is one of the core tenets of the way they do their journalism, and the way their journalism is internally judged and rewarded.
There is only one clear and forcefully policed demarcation line in these organisations when it comes to even the mildest form of covering private lives, and that’s when it comes to the private lives of the family and close associates of the owners and senior management of the media organisation itself.
Invading and breaching privacy is a centrepiece of tabloid journalism that will continue to grow iteratively. Whatever they get away with today will be the starting point for what they can get away with tomorrow, unless stronger privacy legislation or regulation is introduced by governments to curb this behaviour.
The big dilemma with the argument for tougher measures — and it’s a dilemma that tabloid media exploits to the hilt — is that while there is a powerful argument to curb irresponsible abuse, there is also a powerful civil society argument to ensure that information that is truly in the public interest is not circumscribed by laws that have an entirely different intention.
Which is why the “right to know” practitioners run the line that it’s better to suffer some unfair invasion of personal privacy in order to protect publication of important information — laughing all the way to the bank and the pub as they say it.