The right to privacy refers to a person’s right to have a private space, be it around the body (aka personal space) or associated with the home and personal property or having private matters in the person's life staying private. The right to privacy also refers to the right a person has to control the degree of access by others to a person’s private domain.
For most celebrities (not those associated with reality shows), celebrity status was a by-product of the person’s success. It was not the person’s primary goal. Instead the person was focused on achieving goals and longevity in a career and gaining recognition for a talent or achievement. Celebrity status is something that famous people are confronted with and have to learn to manage.
This topic is complex and there are three aspects to it: freedom from scrutiny versus a right to privacy, the media myth, the impact on the audience and in turn on society.
Many people confuse freedom from scrutiny with a right to privacy. We are all subject to passing scrutiny when we’re out in public whether we are conscious of it or not. We observe others and are observed ourselves in turn. Sometimes as part of that scrutiny, we make judgements about who or what we see around us. It’s part of being situationally aware which is increasingly important nowadays. Similarly, we are subject to scrutiny by speed cameras when we travel on public roads and by CTV cameras in shopping malls and other public places. That scrutiny doesn’t mean a person’s privacy has been invaded though.
If you are a celebrity, there is a high probability that a greater percentage of people will be interested in you than they are in a passer-by. It is unrealistic for any celebrity to expect not to be observed and scrutinised when the celebrity is out in public but in a private capacity.
Given the high tech features of mobile phones (I believe Americans call them cell phones) and the ease with which people upload into social media nowadays, everyone has the potential to be a roving reporter. It is natural for fans to want to snap a discrete photo of a celebrity from a distance to record the experience and to share it with friends. In such circumstances, there isn’t any invasion of the celebrity’s privacy.
The second aspect of this topic centres on the myth and argument that celebrities forfeit their privacy once they develop public persona. Whether we realise it or not, we all have a public persona – the face and identity we choose to show to people outside of our homes. Our job – be it a trash collector or an entertainment industry star – is not a valid reason for others to deny our right to privacy.
Of course, in the entertainment industry and politics, celebrities and the media need one another. Like all healthy associations, it should be a symbiotic relationship where there is a mutual benefit, not a parasitic relationship where one exploits and benefits at the expense of the other.
There isn't any valid reason for a celebrity to be treated as an expendable commodity, someone to be exploited and then discarded when exploitation is no longer possible. Certainly there isn’t valid justification for the exploitation of the dark or embarrassing moments of that person or that person’s family life.
The third aspect of this topic is the threat posed to civilised society when we accept the right of others to invade a person’s privacy. When people discuss the right to privacy, they mostly do so from the celebrity or media’s perspective. Few people stop to think about the impact on the audience. That impact is negative and supports the growth of a destructive culture.
The culture supports making money from ‘stolen’ moments in a celebrity’s private life and the writing of take-down articles. It appeals to baser human instincts within the composers as well as the audience. It is a culture that is unable to celebrate success and that lacks generosity of spirit. That culture threatens society because it shifts our reference points for what is acceptable and unacceptable. That culture endorses predatory behaviour that causes tragedy such as the death of Princess Diana.
You may say in response to this article that there are celebrities who behave badly and do so knowing they have a public audience. Surely, they have lost the right to privacy.
That does of course happen. A certain celebrity who shared compromising pictures of himself through Twitter and Instagram comes to mind. In that instant, the celebrity has surrendered the right to privacy for that act in that situation, however, the celebrity has not renounced the right to privacy for the rest of that person’s life.
The actions of the rude, crude, and uncivilised in social media are not reasons to publicise such behaviour. When the press pick up on that type of behaviour and promote it widely, they are contributing to a shift in societal values and the development of a spectator sport. That spectator sport is very similar to rubber necking and to the blood sport fascination associated with gladiatorial games in Ancient Rome. It is strongly reminiscent of the society in the capitol of Panem as portrayed in Hunger Games. If mainstream media does not pick up on social media sharing, a tweet is lost in the blink of an eye because a tsunami of information is now shared through social media.
If we want to sustain a civilised society, we have to consider the people who are impacted by widely publicised poor behaviour – the audience. Public exposure to questionable behaviour inadvertently sets a new code of behaviour because it implies it is acceptable and so establishes it as the norm.
Think for a moment about the way obscenity such as f***! has infiltrated the language in everyday situations in a diverse cross section of society. Through constant exposure to it via film, music, and television, people have unconsciously absorbed the values implied by the use of that obscenity. The impact of that exposure on an audience is similar to the impact of subliminal messages. The impact is huge. Teenagers now use the word liberally and often without realising the word is offensive to many.
Even the most unlikely people, when in similar conflict situations to those shown in the mass media, find themselves uttering the expletive. A thinking person stops, aghast that she or he has reacted in that way, and questions the response and makes a conscious decision to reject the use of such expletives in the future. The unthinking person doesn’t even blink and in doing so endorses the behaviour, establishing it as a normal response and modelling it to the immediate audience as a normal reaction in stress.
As Lieutenant General David Morrison, former Chief of the Australian Army, said in June 2013, 'The standard we walk past is the standard we accept.' I will go one step further. The behaviours we mirror and model in everyday life are the behaviours we condone in society.
The right to privacy is an important right of citizens in a democratic and free world. We have a right to have a private space where we feel safe, be it around the body (aka personal space) or associated with the home and personal property and to expect the private matters of our lives to remain private. We have a right to control the degree of access by others to anything in our private domain. The right to such privacy is very different from freedom from surveillance. Since 9/11 and the rise of terrorism, there has been a genuine need for surveillance to ensure public safety and societal security - a totally different blog and discussion.