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Privacy in the spotlight

Georgie Lyon

The Sydney Morning Herald’s treatment of Rebel Wilson is a recent display of the press’ prioritisation of article views over the privacy of individuals.

Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald, was recently forced to defend itself against claims that it had, in effect, ‘outed’ actress Rebel Wilson to whom it allegedly gave 48 hours for a response to its questions surrounding a relationship with a member of the same sex. It has been widely reported that as a result of receiving this request for comment, Wilson shared an Instagram post - a photo of her with Ramona Agruma, sharing news of their relationship. But the issue here is not so much whether it shocks the public that Rebel Wilson is a member of the LGBTQ+ community but that she felt she had no option but to announce private information about her personal relationship with Ramona Agruma before she might have otherwise chosen to do so.

The Sydney Morning Herald, and the journalist involved has since issued a statement noting that they got some of the process wrong, retracting the column in the process. However, the paper initially hit back at criticism, stating that it had treated the story with “an abundance of caution and respect” in its request for comment - a common part of the journalistic process is where the individual at the centre of a story is given the opportunity to comment on allegations or content concerning them that is scheduled to be published. But can these questions or a request for comment ever be appropriate in these circumstances, when a relationship has been conducted privately, away from the public eye?

This attitude that journalists currently have applies to all types of issues from outing aspects of individuals personal lives, to reporting on victims of crime in a salacious way, to exposing corruption and adding private and personal details to the story. Journalists are increasingly becoming emboldened when using the “public interest” as an argument to justify the publication of personal information and this is example is unfortunately not the first, and it won’t be the last. Personal information is a currency when it comes to journalism, the more personal a story, the more clicks it will inevitably get, or in the case of an investigative journalist, the more personality and personal history in a story, the bigger the book deal. In essence, breaches of privacy are now perceived as big-ticket opportunities.

In England, the press must consider Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the ECHR) which protects an individual’s right to a private life and family life. The courts have made it clear that a person’s sexual preferences and intimate details of personal relationships are inherently private. This right however is often balanced against the public interest and journalists will often seek to add personality to an anodyne corporate story by saying that certain details are in the public interest. The same laws apply regardless of who an individual is, whether that be a celebrity or a business executive.

It falls then to the courts to determine the balance between that right to privacy and the public interest - and it is important to remember that information that may be considered to be in the public interest is not necessarily the same as information the public is interested in. The torrid and not so torrid details of a celebrity’s sex life might be very interesting to some members of the public, who devour gossip columns, and this no doubt motivates journalists to source stories which uncover details of a public figure’s personal life, but in reality is this actually in the public interest? The same principle applies in a more increased way to a non-celebrity surely? Case law has repeatedly shown that, generally, the sex life, or the personal and private details of an individual, a public figure or not, is not in the public interest. More importantly, the sex life of a private individual almost certainly isn’t, and it is not just Rebel Wilson who has been thrust into the spotlight in this case.

It’s therefore becoming increasingly important to highlight these problems and issues in a journalist’s approach and push back when journalists seemingly appear to be pushing for a narrative that is inevitably going to cause much harm. Each case is different, but it’s an increasing trend as we are frequently asked to act for individuals who are suddenly faced with articles that threaten to severely impinge their privacy, or where a journalist becomes particularly difficult thinking they’ve got a book deal in the pipeline.