- Do you want to read the grim details of the recent death of Nick Cave’s son Jethro Lazenby; or
- watch footage of Bella Hadid’s fall down stairs at a New York restaurant? TMZ (Bella Hadid models how to fall 2017) comments on the steps it takes to fall like a supermodel; or
- maybe you’d like to view or listen to an audio file on Kevin Spacey being charged with four criminal counts of sexual assault in the UK?
Privacy rights of celebrities?
Is reporting about celebrities and their activities in real time, on social media sites, fair and reasonable? Is there a line that is crossed when a celebrity is surveilled and their privacy invaded? Perhaps celebrities should not have the same rights to privacy that regular citizens have?
In a recent poll of classmates on Twitter (Shaw 2017) I asked do celebrities forfeit their right to privacy? Everyone who responded had an opinion.
Some may argue that celebrities are unique and forfeit their private citizen rights when they become a celebrity. They may reason that being a celebrity requires surveillance to create publicity – which is the bread and butter of their occupation. Further, such a commentator may note that celebrities are happy to be photographed and recorded for their own publicity purposes, when it suits them, but are not so accommodating when they are not looking or feeling their best, or are caught in a compromising position.
Yet is this argument ethical? McFarland (2012) observes that ‘People can be harmed or debilitated if there is no restriction on the public’s access to and use of personal information’. Further he notes that:
To lose control of one’s personal information is in some measure to lose control of one’s life and one’s dignity. Therefore, even if privacy is not in itself a fundamental right, it is necessary to protect other fundamental rights. (McFarland 2012, p.1)
Are celebrities private citizens?
If celebrities’ are deemed to be private citizens how should their rights to privacy be protected? Gross (2017) concludes that ‘The tension arises out of the juxta positioning of a journalist’s right to freedom of expression and an individual’s expectation of privacy.’ Determining responses to the privacy related questions that arise is a legal matter that is governed by privacy laws that vary from country to country.
In Australia the law states that public figures do not forfeit their right to privacy. Campbell v MGN Ltd cited in the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s (ACMA) Privacy guidelines for broadcasters (2016) states:
Public figures such as politicians, celebrities, prominent sports and business people and those in public office do not forfeit their right to privacy in their personal lives. However, it is accepted that public figures will be open to a greater level of scrutiny of any matter that may affect the conduct of their public activities and duties. (ACMA 2016, p.6).
Voyeurism – watching from the shadows
Yet aside from various privacy laws, the broader question is why is the public interested in checking social media sites about celebrities date nights, divorces and weight issues? Surely if there was no public appetite for watching celebrities, then social media sites specialising in gossip would soon go out of business? Perhaps the answer is that surveilling others is a characteristic of human behaviour and that many of us are closet voyeurs?
Although data may be being collected and the social media sites and content that we are looking at may be tracked, the average person may operate in denial and like to believe that they are anonymous – that they are watching people privately, without the knowledge of those they are watching.
A human instinct?
It may be that this behaviour is also a function of human nature – based on a survival instinct. This may manifest as tracking other humans and strangers in the environment in order to keep alert about potentially suspicious behaviour. This behaviour may also be required to understand the functioning of the group and avoid harm and danger.
Proof of suspicious behaviour
A recent positive outcome of a person surveilling a stranger and tracking suspicious behaviour was reported on (Buzzfeed News 2017, p.1). The social media site reported that a teacher sitting on a plane became suspicious when she saw the man in front of her texting in large font, on a big smartphone screen, about sexually molesting young children.
The quick thinking teacher photographed the text messages, alerted the airline staff and provided police with the evidence at the airport. On this basis the man was arrested by the police.
Not all surveillance is negative
There are a number of things that are impressive about the way that the teacher behaved in the situation. Through her surveillance she determined that: there was a serious problem that she needed to act upon and that she should collect and provide evidence to support her surveillance. The teacher’s courage to act on her surveillance made all the difference in the case and illustrates the point that not all surveillance is negative.
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