Free speech and trivia

Part Four of the spiked-report 'Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age'.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

Part Four of the spiked-report ‘Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age’.

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  • The media’s obsession with personal trivia stories is problematic.
  • But regulating to protect privacy does not raise standards of journalism.
  • The rise of confessional journalism is part of a broader culture of victimhood.
  • Challenging this culture requires more speech, not less.

Trivia as news

The debate about the quality of speech involves value judgements – and it is difficult to devise clear standards about what counts as a high or low standard of speech.

Decisions about what is newsworthy or too prurient to publish are based on opinions that not everybody shares. They can reflect the outlook of powerful interests in society over the less powerful, keeping public figures’ private lives secret when they may be important to reveal.

Speech in the public arena today is often trivial, banal, self-indulgent and petty. People volunteer details about their intimate lives – often over-dramatising stories about their lives, in a kind of reality soap opera – and the media shapes this in favour of confessional accounts.

Increasingly, public discourse concerns the sex lives, character, psychological influences, personal habits and emotions of oneself and others (1). To the detriment of facts and objective analysis, speech that is normally confined to the private world is now rampant in the public one.

According to Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, ‘privacy barriers’ are being broken down not just by the tabloid media but by members of the ‘moral establishment’ like Cristina Odone, deputy editor of the New Statesman (who wrote a piece for the Daily Mail speculating on the feelings of the girlfriend of Sven-Goran Eriksson, the England football team manager), or by ‘BBC heavyweight political pundits’ like Jeremy Paxman, presenter of BBC2’s Newsnight (who asked Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy about his drinking habits). Toynbee concluded that this trend represents ‘everyone’s loss of civility, intimacy and a secret realm, everyone’s sense of a discreet private space which should stay beyond the brazen megaphone of public exposure’ (2).

But discussions about the quality of speech should be distinct from the question of whether free speech on these trivial matters ought to be regulated. That the rise of trivia is increasingly used to justify regulation ends up confusing the two debates.

Speech may be trivial but doesn’t mean it should be censored. Those demanding changes in media standards today are often those seeking to control their own PR, or to protect lucrative financial deals based on selling their private information. For example, on the eve of launching her case against the Mirror, a spokesman for Naomi Campbell explained: ‘Naomi has decided to come out fighting because she feels an important principle is at stake. That is the right of celebrities who are having some form of medical treatment – be it for drugs or drink or bulimia – to have anonymity during their treatment.’ (3) The supermodel went on to win damages against the newspaper and discuss her personal life in Hello! magazine.

Public figures are often the first to seek privacy protection under new regulations of speech. For example the Press Complaints Commission’s first landmark judgement, in 1991 – the year of its inception – ruled that public figures were entitled to the same protection for their private lives as other individuals. This followed a complaint about articles written about her private life by Labour MP Clare Short (now secretary of state for international development).

Ten years later, the first court cases testing how judges develop the Human Rights Act on privacy and free speech involve a supermodel, a Hollywood actor, a Premiership footballer, a TV presenter, and a TV newsreader.

Toby Young, theatre critic for the Spectator and author of How To Lose Friends and Alienate People (an account of the five years he spent working as a journalist in New York), explains how celebrities can operate behind the scenes to get the PR they want from an interview.

‘Celebrities use several tacit methods to protect their privacy without resorting to the law,’ says Young. ‘For example, I was interviewing Claudia Schiffer, the model and actress, for a cover story and at the conclusion of the interview I said, “Claudia, will you have dinner with me?” She said, “I’d love to but I’ve got to go back to the office and go through all the articles that have been written about me recently which I have copy approval over.” That made me stop and think. “Claudia,” I said, “you haven’t been given copy approval over the article I’m writing have you?” “Of course,” she replied. I called the office and my editor then told me that she had done a deal with Claudia’s publicist guaranteeing her copy approval of all the photos and the quotes. She could control absolutely everything that I was going to write.’ (4)

It is not surprising that people want to control the way in which they are portrayed to other people, or to make a living from talking about their lives. But this is no reason to censor the ability of others to say what they want. Interviewees are free to talk about themselves as much as they want. Interviewers should be equally free to talk about their views of interviewees talking about themselves.

The rise of trivia-as-news has muddled the ways in which media reformers think media standards can be improved. Plenty of journalists who support voluntary codes on privacy are surprised that other journalists support tougher penalties for privacy-invading speech. Improving media standards is one thing; legal censorship quite another.

As Chris Oakley, a former executive director at the Mirror Group, has commented: ‘It astonishes me that some journalists have been willing to give up press freedoms; that editors should hold out their wrists to be handcuffed. This view goes against all the reasons I became a journalist many years ago.’ (5)

This attachment to regulation amongst many in the media seems to indicate a loss of faith in their own ability to raise the level of public discourse. The argument seems to be that a free press has allowed for the decline in investigations into serious misdemeanours of powerful people, and for the rise of media intrusions into private life – so the only thing left to do is to regulate.
Curbing for quality

Echoing the 2001 announcement by Phil Harding, the BBC’s controller of editorial policy, that the BBC would be prepared to support a carefully drafted privacy law (6), Clive Jones, chief executive of Carlton Channels, has commented: ‘I am perfectly relaxed to accept a degree of privacy legislation being brought in as part of a broader deal about the freedom of information as a way of drawing the line between the public and the private. I believe in the exchange of a small measure of privacy legislation – not just for those figures in the public eye but also members of the general public – for a system of on-going free information.’ (7)

But why must there be such a compromise?

Julian Petley, chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, believes that the right to privacy enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) is an important weapon against an intrusive media, which can be used by people with little recourse against such intrusions: for example, asylum seekers. Ultimately, Petley argues, free speech and privacy issues should be resolved by the courts, with proper public interest defences for investigative journalism.

‘Only asinine and constitutionally illiterate British newspapers, blinded as they are by self-interest, could regard [this] as “legislation by the back door”’, says Petley. ‘Thankfully judges have changed a great deal for the better in recent years…. However judges still need to be made much more accountable to and representative of the population as a whole, and legal anomalies such as the law lords (both law makers and law interpreters) need to be cleared up, as does the equally anomalous job of the Lord Chancellor. Only then will the HRA be in safe hands’ (8).

David Northmore, an investigative journalist, says, ‘I see the Human Rights Act as a potentially positive influence on investigative journalism in particular. The UK media is largely obsessed with profiling individuals as distinct from the activities of organisations. The greater the rights of personal privacy then the greater is the likelihood that the media will turn its attention to those organisations and institutions in our society that exercise power over our lives.’ (9)

It is certainly true that some media organisations have no qualms about taking other media organisations to court. The case of Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta Jones and OK! vs Hello! – one of the first cases of privacy brought after the Human Rights Act came fully into force – involved two magazines.

Media organisations – including the tabloid press – are also expressing concerns about the amount of coverage devoted to celebrities, and the way this coverage is done. Two months after the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, Mirror editor Piers Morgan suggested that celebrities contact the newspaper’s advertising department rather than seek fawning editorial coverage. (10)

Speaking at a Society of Editors conference on 22 October 2001, Morgan described how he felt dismay at a summer spent covering the antics of a ‘halfwit from Wales’ on Channel 4’s Big Brother. ‘I remember sitting in my office one night watching this garbage thinking: has it really come to this?…For the first time in 30 years, people in this country are rejecting the Big Brother-style trivia they so adored five weeks ago and are realising there really are more important things in the world.’ (11)

In March 2002, the Spectator, New Statesman and Prospect were among 12 magazines to adopt an anti-celebrity stance as a part of a new marketing initiative called The Cultural Publications Group. (12)

However, attempts to improve the quality of content using media curbs, taking celebrity stories off the front page or reducing the use of long-range photographic lenses have failed to stop the broader transformation of news values or so-called ‘dumbing down’. It is not only the overdose of celebrity coverage that is the problem. Rather there is a cultural shift in the way public issues are addressed generally.

Witness, for instance, the growing inclusion in news coverage of updates on the latest feelings about events – feelings from the victims, the people on the street, and the reporters themselves. The classic Who-What-Where-When-Why news reporting formula is now likely to be heavily weighted in terms of ‘Feel’: what people feel about what happened, what the reporter feels about what happened and what people feel about others feelings about what happened.

It is the case that public outcries about excessive and upsetting media intrusion following tragedies, particularly those relating to children, seem to have resulted in news journalists changing their behaviour – at least in the short-term. For example, the obsessive coverage of the abduction and murder of two schoolgirls in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in August 2002 caused considerable unease, even amongst the media, and some journalists backed off from the town. But this didn’t stop the emotional pornography of commentary.

The growing concern about confessional journalism has not reduced the number of interviews with public figures willing to talk about problems in their sex lives or their time spent in drug rehab. It hasn’t curtailed the influence of emotional journalism. And it hasn’t stopped the rise of these phenomena across the board – not only in the tabloid press, but also in television news and the broadsheet newspapers (13).

What accounts for the grip that confessional culture has over the media today? Ultimately, it is because the influences holding sway are far deeper than simply editorial decisions about how journalists cover particular stories. The culture of our times is one that deifies ‘survivors’ who have unique stories to tell and emotions to recount.
Survivor stories

In this victim culture, the act of opening up to reveal private feelings is glorified; the impulse to assess critically whatever is being said is undermined. This represents a bias against the authority of those who can shed light on issues, in favour of those who have lived through the experience.

Privacy protections cannot challenge this broader culture: indeed, they could help fuel it. The way the rules are framed means that a Hollywood star can tell us the secrets of their soul, but privacy restrictions limit the ability of anyone else to find out the truth about what they are saying.

Most criticism of the contemporary media focuses on sex stories and the intrusion into the lives of children, the sick or victims of tragedies. But a bigger problem is that not all types of emotionally centred media coverage are considered intrusive or unimportant. Although journalists dispute the merits of publishing details of extra-marital affairs, or the entertainment value of topless photos of female celebrities on a beach, an idea that unites many is that the inclusion of people’s emotions in news reports is a more human – if not better – way of looking at life.

Following the Paddington rail crash of October 1999, Independent columnist Natasha Walter argued that news coverage should avoid ‘slipping in to a sludge of sentimentality’. However, she went on to say that today’s reportage represents a ‘positive change’, a ‘more humanised way of looking at the world’, where a person ‘is allowed the space to be weak’. ‘This engaged, campaigning tone,’ she said, ‘arises out of more engaged reportage, and at that point it becomes a force for change.’ (14)

The danger of this outlook of ‘engaged reportage’ is that news subjects become more counselled by reporters than they are scrutinised, leading to a doubly degraded kind of journalism. Writing about the media coverage of Diana’s death, spiked editor Mick Hume wrote that: ‘On the one hand reporters felt free to intrude into people’s most personal affairs with a nauseating air of self-righteous moralism, issuing instructions on the correct way to grieve and when and where to weep. On the other, public debate was debased by an editorial elevation of feelings over facts and the insistence that the heart should rule the head.’ (15)

The elevation of ‘heart over head’ is a trend followed by the media, but its cause lies far deeper, in politics and society. ‘If we think hard about privacy, and ask what has really made it as endangered a species in modern Britain as courtly romance or stiff formality, the answer does not lie only in the realm of surveillance and monitoring,’ wrote Jonathan Freedland, policy editor at the Guardian, in September 2002. ‘It’s also about a cultural change, in which modesty, reserve and discretion – those sentries of privacy – have come to seem like values which are quaint or even vaguely repressed…Big Brother is watching us, to be sure. But we are also inviting him to take a look.’ (16)

Politicians, academics and campaigners today routinely frame public issues in emotional terms. Writing on 22 August 2002 about the effects of political emotional rhetoric after Diana’s death, Richard Morrison, columnist for the Times (London), argued: ‘Because this mass hysteria of mourning was approved by the State, and indeed to a certain extend fuelled by Tony Blair in his “she was the people’s princess” speech, it effectively legitimised the public’s ‘right’ to pry in to private lives (and private grief) in a way that years of tabloid revelations never had.’ (17)

This is not to let the media off the hook. Broadcasters and the press continually fuel the trend towards emotionalism. This is particularly clear in relation to the debate about privacy and press freedom. In reaction to the increasing media restrictions brought in the name of privacy, some journalists end up inflating the importance of stories about people’s personal lives.

For example, in June 2002 the Mail on Sunday said that it wanted to publish the ‘full facts’ of a TV presenter’s sexual activities that would ‘shock even his closest friends’. This followed allegations in the News of the World that TV presenter Angus Deayton had slept with a prostitute and taken cocaine. The Mail on Sunday argued that ‘we think there is a strong public interest at stake here and we feel matters should be revealed’. (Currently the Mail on Sunday is appealing against a court injunction stopping publication of the story) (18).

However, not all gossip is irrelevant. Sometimes gossip can reveal important truths about the rich and powerful – insights into their character, or the hypocrisy of their private lives compared with their public personas. The popularity of gossip can be viewed as just ‘harmless fun’ offering ‘shared points of reference’ (19).

It is also argued, with some justification, that public figures forfeit an element of privacy when they willingly use images of their private lives for their own gain. As Anna McKane, lecturer in journalism at London’s City University, observes, ‘The prime minister for example, uses his family regularly for press shots, which are clearly intended by him and his advisers to project a certain image of him. These young people are therefore put in the public eye by the Prime Minister himself, so there can be no complaint when they end up in the papers in other stories.’ (20)

It may well be the case that somebody who is happy to talk about private matters for his own ends is fair game when the press chooses to reveal some of his personal secrets. But there is a danger that support for free expression is confused with a defence of the quality of the material published. Why should the fact that somebody can be seen to have forfeited their privacy make stories about their private lives more interesting or newsworthy?
Having it both ways

The argument that publishing a story is more acceptable when a person has compromised his or her privacy is often marshalled as a defence of free speech – but it implicitly undermines this right, by allowing judges and media regulators to qualify free speech with the degree to which somebody has shown himself to be fair game.

This tension was indicated by the ruling of Mr Justice Ouseley in the case of Theakston v The People – when TV presenter Jamie Theakston tried to stop a story about his visit to a brothel. Theakston had talked about his private life previously, and consequently ‘the claimant cannot complain if the publicity given to his sexual activities is less favourable in this instance.’ (21)

A similar ruling was given by the PCC in the case of TV presenter Vanessa Feltz v the Sunday Mirror, brought after the newspaper published articles about Feltz’s love life. The PCC stated: ‘Privacy is a right which can be compromised and those who talk about their private lives on their own terms must expect that there may be others who will do so, without their consent, in a less than agreeable way.’ (22)

These might seem like good outcomes for the press. But what if somebody in the public eye had never compromised his privacy, and a journalist felt it was important to expose some aspect of his private life? Is this acceptable? Or would it fail the free speech test of whether that person had willingly comprised his privacy in the past?

In some ways, the publication of personal trivia should not matter a great deal. If people want to read about or publish stories about celebrities’ sex lives, why not? If celebrities want to confess all on a TV reality show or in a tabloid newspaper, why not? Even if the traditional media reduced its confessional coverage tomorrow, it wouldn’t stop chit-chat about personal matters. People would simply gossip in the pub or broadcast their bedroom secrets on the Internet.

There is no reason to force editors of red-top tabloids to change their front pages, or broadcasters to take so-called ‘victim TV’ programmes like Oprah, The Jerry Springer Show or Trisha off the air. Even if it entertains more than informs, there is a place for a public discussion of people’s inner lives or just having a good laugh.

The problem today is that coverage of private life dominates public discourse at the expense of more enlightening ways of looking at the world. Inundate the public realm with emotional discussions about private transgressions and relationship problems, magnify its importance and, the result? We receive an uninspiring spectacle of emotional indulgence as if everyone feels the same way about public issues.

To address this broader problem, my contention is that we need more speech rather than less speech. Speech that is free from restraint has a better chance of improving a confessional culture. At least with more debate, society might be better equipped to work out what causes a confessional culture in the first place.

  • Point one: Censorship cannot change a confessional culture.

This is part four of the spiked-report ‘Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age’.

Read on:

Part Five: Free speech and the ‘right to know’

Part Six: Free speech and the public interest

Part Seven: The confusion over privacy

Part Eight: Privacy loses its meaning

Part Nine: Privacy, free speech and the media: some conclusions

Part Ten: Contents and acknowledgements

Part One: Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age

Part Two: Privacy vs free speech: two competing rights?

Part Three: A qualified right to free speech

(1) See History of Scandal, BBC website, 7 June 2002; and Royalty vs. The Pursuing Press, Special Report, Time magazine, 28 February 1983

(2) This cult of intrusion and bullying is cheapening us all, Polly Toynbee, Guardian, 24 July 2002

(3) Quoted in ‘I’ve never been camera shy, but there are limits,’ an interview with Naomi Campbell by Cosmo Landesman, The Sunday Times, 4 February 2001

(4) Toby Young, theatre critic of the Spectator, in a speech given at a debate organised as part of the research for this report at the Sugar Reef nightclub, 2001

(5) Interview with Chris Oakley, Managing Director, Mirror Regional Newspapers, published in Disclosure: media freedom and the privacy debate after Diana edited by Tessa Mayes (The LIRE media group, 1998)

(6) Phil Harding, BBC Controller of Editorial Policy, in a speech entitled ‘Would a privacy law be better?,’ at the White Paper Conference, ‘New legal challenges for the media’, Society of Editors, 23 February 2001

(7) Interview: Clive Jones

(8) Julian Petley, chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, in a questionnaire by The LIRE media group

(9) David Northmore, an investigative journalist and author of Lifting the Lid – a guide to investigative research (Cassell, 1996), in a questionnaire by The LIRE media group

(10) Morgan ups ante in war on celebrities, Guardian, 28 November 2001

(11) Sept 11 changed Mirror forever says Morgan, Guardian, 23 October 2001

(12) ‘Magazines shun celebrity ‘tat’ in drive for readers,’ Press Gazette, 8 March 2002

(13) Tessa Mayes ‘Submerging in “therapy news”,’ British Journalism Review, (December 2000) and Mick Hume, Televictims – emotional correctness in the media AD (After Diana), (LM magazine, 1998)

(14) Natasha Walter, ‘We cry together and then we get angry,’ Independent Review, 11 October 1999

(15) Mick Hume, Televictims – emotional correctness in the media AD (After Diana), (LM magazine, 1998), p13

(16) Jonathan Freedland, ‘Open Secret’ published in The Guardian’s ‘Big Brother’ supplement – Part One, 7 September 2002

(17) Richard Morrison, Column, The Times, 22 August 2002

(18) Mail appeals against Deayton gag, Guardian, 1 July 2002

(19) Why celeb gossip is a healthy obsession, Charlotte Raven, 28 August 2001

(20) Anna McKane, Lecturer, Department of Journalism, City University (London) in a questionnaire by The LIRE media group

(21) Kiss and Tell Blow for Theakston, Guardian, 15 February 2002

(22) Complaint by Vanessa Feltz to the Press Complaints Commission, 15 July 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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