Crossing the line

 
 

In a period of greatly increased media speculation and inquiry, Matthew Gregg questions the limits of the press.

MAX MOSLEY REPORTEDLY gets his kicks from leather whips. Amy Winehouse is reputed to have taken more hits than the Dow Jones. And, for reasons unknown, Ashley Cole is claimed to continually cheat on the beautiful Cheryl.

These are clearly personal issues that very few people would willingly have revealed to the whole world as ‘news’. And yet, these are exactly the stories that have been splashed across front pages, filling column inch after column inch in recent months. We can print these because we live in a liberal democracy, with the free press as a central pillar. However, does that really override everyone’s right to a private life?

The number one demand made by the National Union of Journalists in their ethics guide, to which all British and Irish journalists must abide, is that members uphold media freedom. Their stance on people’s right to privacy is somewhat more interesting. It states that members do “nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest.”

However, does a matter have to be in the public interest or merely interesting to the public? It seems that, in many cases, enough people are nosy enough to want to know and so, does the journalist have a duty to inform them?

“Sensation sells papers. Dull doesn’t”

At the moment, it would appear that this is how some journalists are choosing to interpret it. As Editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, Paul Darce, so aptly put it in his recent speech championing a completely free press; “Sensation sells papers. Dull doesn’t.” It’s like that car crash on the side of the road. We don’t slow down just because the fluorescent emergency services’ sign tells us to. We do it because disasters are interesting. Nobody wants to hear about the thousands of cars that drove up and down that road without a scratch. They want to hear about the one unlucky fellow who ended up being catapulted across three lanes of oncoming traffic. This is then used by the media as a barometer of the story’s likely success.

We are not the rational beings economists like to think we are. We are emotional creatures. The best selling stories are those where it’s impossible not to form an emotional connection. It doesn’t matter if this emotion is anger, fear or even curiosity. If we feel an emotional connection, we are going to read on.

This is why the parents of missing child Madeline McCann have had their lives and movements chronicled by various newspapers and television stations. Similarly, Jade Goody’s frequent appearances on the cover of Hello! reflects public interest in her tragic story.

This is how the papers sometimes go too far. A family’s mourning at the loss of their daughter becomes a summer-long soap opera, including fabricated plot twists. What should be the final, dignified act in a women’s life has become a step-by-step diary of her demise. For many, the intrusion of the media into these peoples’ lives has become deeply disturbing.

It’s not at all to say that stories such as these shouldn’t be reported on. In fact, it is arguable that both have had some positive features. It is highly doubtful that the McCann’s could have mounted anywhere near as effective a search campaign without the media and the masses of funds they managed to raise. Likewise, in the aftermath of Jade Goody’s much publicised cancer there has been a surge in woman getting screened for cervical cancer and donations to cancer related charities.

However, it can be argued that newspapers should display greater sensitivity when dealing with such emotionally loaded incidents. When editors pass off unfounded accusations that a couple have “murdered” their own child as viable news stories, it makes one pause to wonder whether the media really has any respect for individual’s private lives. No amount of damages paid will erase that lingering suspicion in the minds of many that they may have actually done it. Even in certain cases where there has been no defamation the media has a moral obligation to tread carefully.

It is arguable that a celebrity’s sexuality, dependencies and fidelity are issues that are open to the public interest. At the end of the day, this is part of the package celebrities sign up to in exchange for their lifestyle. However, the issue of death should be a rather more restricted one. Jade Goody’s case is terrible and it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for her but there is no discernable reason as to why it should be a national obsession. It trivialises an issue which should be treated with dignity and decorum. Personal grief should remain just that.

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