Freedom of the Press Versus Right to Privacy

932 Words May 13th, 2011 4 Pages
Freedom of the press versus right to privacy
ByRobert Skidelsky (China Daily)
Privacy has become a big issue in contemporary jurisprudence. The "right to privacy" is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But Article 8 is balanced by Article 10, which guarantees "free expression of opinion". So what right has priority when they conflict?

Under what circumstances, for example, is it right to curtail press freedom in order to protect the right to privacy, or vice versa? The same balance is being sought between the right of citizens to data privacy and government demands for access to personal information to fight crime, terrorism, and so on.
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A law that curtails the abuse of press power while protecting its freedom to expose the abuse of political power would be difficult, but not impossible, to frame. The essential principle is that the media should not be allowed to pander to the public 's prurience under cover of protecting the public interest.

What famous people - indeed ordinary people, too - do in private should be off limits to the media unless they give permission for those activities to be reported, photographed, or filmed. The only exceptions would be if a newspaper has reasonable grounds for believing that the individuals concerned are breaking the law, or that, even if they are not breaking the law, they are behaving in such a way as to render them unfit to perform the duties expected of them.

Thus, a pop star 's consumption of illegal drugs may be reported, but not his or her sexual habits (if they are legal). The private life of a politician may be revealed if it is expected to have consequences for the way the country is being governed; that of a top executive of a public company if it may affect the returns to shareholders.

This should be the only "public interest" defense available to a media outlet that is sued for invasion of privacy. The media might become a bit drearier, but public life would be far healthier.

The author is a professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University

Project Syndicate

(China Daily

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