In a western democracy such as the one we have in Britain, freedom of expression is vital in maintaining the smooth running of the country. The role of the journalistic media (normative paradigm) is that of the fourth estate, an independent institutional source of power, which monitors and scrutinises the actions of the powerful, in other spheres. The Journalist then has the right and duty to report what they believe to be correct and detailed information about how the country is being run for any person involved in taking part in political decisions.
Individuals in positions of authority have to be accountable for their actions and if they are abusing their power it is in the public's interest to be informed. A free press is a privilege, which needs to be handled with care, as people's reputations and even their lives could be at stake. (Frost. 2000: 49) An individual under article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which was incorporated into English law in October 2000, has the right to privacy.
In summary this means they have the right to live their own life with minimum interference. Then should a journalist invade a person's privacy, they must do because it was in the public interest. Since the 1990s the media has come under a much criticism for invasions of privacy in particular of celebrities and male Tory MPs. A moral panic has emerged over the 'dumbing down' and 'tabloidisation' of the media. Serious political analysis has been replaced by sensational drama and sleaze coverage.
Press invasion of privacy has not just affected those with celebrity status but ordinary citizens. The Press Complaints Commission, which has detailed policies regarding privacy and harassment, has received a number of complaints from the general public over invasions of privacy. If an individual has had their privacy violated then they have the right to sue the paper for libel but this only something the super rich can do and the public can only rely on the PCC which has no statutory power to act on their behalf.
As our society has become increasingly gossip orientated, those in the public eye find themselves the victims of press invasion, not because a person's sex life is in the public's interest more so because it is something that interests the public. These people have the money to take a paper to court and if the journalist cannot provide evidence suggesting they acted in the public interest then they are most likely to sue for libel. A recent example of this is the Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas case against 'Hello' magazine.
The couple have taken the magazine to court over pictures taken of their wedding. The photographers had slipped into the wedding undetected with a hidden camera. This is a case that could result in serious restrictions being placed on press freedom. The couple have accused the magazine for invading their privacy, and in this case they do have a point, was it in the public interest to sneak into the wedding. The answer is no, however because they are in the public eye they automatically lose some of their rights to privacy. Another case where invasion of privacy was an issue was the Peck v United Kingdom case.
Geoffrey Peck, while depressed had tried to kill himself in a public place and was caught by CCTV cameras and prevented from committing suicide. Some time later the local council released the footage to television stations and the local press. Peck complained to the broadcasting standards commission and the independent television commission they upheld his claim and the PCC rejected his claim. He eventually ended up at the court of human rights in Strasburg, where he complained his rights had been violated under article 8, and last month the court found him right and awarded him 7,800 in damages.
But with more and more cases of libel regarding invasions of privacy into a person's personal life there is talk of introducing a privacy law. This could have serious repercussions on press freedom. A High Court has ruled that an individual has no overriding right to privacy when it conflicts with the public interest. But as with the cases mentioned above in particular the Catherine Zeta Jones case, the invasion was carried out to boost circulation figures. Should a privacy law be introduced they will need to decide on whether the invasion of privacy is a civil offence or criminal offence.
If it is the latter then journalists could face continual challenge by the police and face constantly being arrested. If it becomes a civil law then only the rich will benefit, and a journalist will measure a person's wealth before deciding to invade their privacy. A privacy law according to Paul Dacre, editor in chief of Associated Newspapers could kill small newspapers, if it issues fines for editors who break it. He also warned that a press ombudsman could lead to the appointment of an ombudsman at regional level to oversee complaints.
"It would be a repugnant step, a bureaucratic nightmare". The cases used above are examples of invasions of privacy, which are not of public interest. The following examples show why a reporter's right to report are just as important as individuals right to privacy. In 2000, Lesley Saunders, freelance for the Reading Chronicle, took a job at the town's legal aid office in order to expose malpractice. In April 2000, Burhan Wazir, of the Observer, went undercover to show how a i?? 350 bribe helped smuggle him into Britain in a truck with two Pakistanis and an Iranian.
The Government in 1996 were revealed to have turned a blind eye to the export of weapon manufacturing systems to Iraq by a company called Matrix Churchill, and had then tried to cover it up. It is cases like these that stress the need for a free press, to expose corrupt politicians and make them accountable for their decisions. If we are to use our right to vote wisely then it is essential we are provided with correct information to base our decisions on. But due to so many cases regarding privacy coming to court could mean the introduction of a privacy law.
Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian suggests a, 'properly worded privacy law, which might reduce some of the media's excesses, could be exchanged for a new libel legislation that encouraged free expression on matters of public importance'. A properly worded privacy law could mean the media could be prevented from invading privacy purely for entertainment and instead their actions can be justified if for example they were trying to detect crime, protect public health, or prevent them from being misled.
A privacy law will restrict the media's freedom to report matters of public interest, and could only benefit the wealthy in society. The PCC covers in detail issues of privacy, intrusion, intrusion into shock and grief and harassment but many people especially the rich and famous are not happy with the media regulatory bodies preferring to take a paper to court rather than settle for a simple apology e. g. the mystery footballer who succeeded in getting an injunction against News of the World is yet another example of some one in the public eye who bypassed the PCC in favour of a route which appeared to him to be more effective. What is needed then is not restriction on media freedom but effective punishments for when they violate a person's right to privacy if it is not in the public interest and especially if the violation has caused distress.