Interview: Ray Bellisario and David Northmore

Photojournalist Ray Bellisario and investigative journalist David Northmore on free speech and privacy.

Tessa Mayes

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Ray Bellisario and David Northmore were interviewed as part of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.

Ray Bellisario, photojournalist and video documentarist.

From personal experience, ‘privacy and intrusion’ are much overused terms. What should be worthy principles in ethical journalism are often sidelined by scarcely veiled barriers to prevent real investigative reporting – invariably benefiting the wealthy and powerful section of society. In these circumstances, a true description of ‘codes of conduct on privacy and intrusion’ is censorship.

Codes of conduct are an excellent and laudable principle if they were properly applied. Otherwise, as another method of maintaining secrecy and misinformation, they don’t correctly serve public interest.

Properly evaluated, the news values of the ‘confessions’ of the private lives of so-called celebrities are totally inconsequential, self-publicising twaddle. In real terms, society gains not one iota from such media reporting. It’s pure shite.

It is wrong to place a line between private and public life. As I understand it, the line is very clearly defined as one by which public interest is faithfully serviced.

Being an imperfect world this line is often blurred – thus allowing self-aggrandisement, dual benefit and, in the case of certain publications, increased circulation rating. This is something we simply have to live with and a sensible society must judge – certainly not courts which are accessible only to the wealthy. Certainly not an establishment organisation like the Press Complaints Commission – which, as is frequently demonstrated, is prone to adjudicate in favour of the privileged and the well-connected.

A committee of lay members of the public, determining genuine public concern and public interest that is unapproachable by governmental and other institutional bodies – including media organisations – would be more desirable. If ordinary members of the public can be juried in a court of law then they can judge media behaviour.

Ray Bellisario is a photojournalist and video documentarist. He works in Gerona, Spain and worked for 18 years (1958-76) as a royal specialist, ‘becoming known worldwide for a different and fresh approach to an otherwise banal subject’.

David Northmore, investigative journalist and author

I see the Human Rights Act as a potentially positive influence on investigative journalism in particular. The UK media in 2001 is largely obsessed with profiling individuals – as distinct from the activities of organisations. The greater the rights of personal privacy, then the greater the likelihood that the media will turn their attention to those organisations and institutions in our society that exercise power over our lives. It remains to be seen if the Human Rights Act is interpreted positively in the courts to provide a public interest defence to the seemingly blanket right to ‘personal privacy.’

The media are too intrusive upon individuals, especially high-profile subjects who tend to possess little if any social or political power – such as Posh and Becks, soap stars and film stars.

However, it is not intrusive enough upon organisations such as companies, charities, local government authorities, quangos, voluntary organisations, political parties, government departments, rogue landlords, sweatshop employers, bogus banks, rip-off High Street operators or those agencies not actively resisting fluoride, asbestos or the Official Secrets Act.

How should we judge the news values of stories involving celebrities talking about their private lives? Just use your eyes, ears and press cuttings files. Where does PR end and journalism start? How many newspaper ‘revelations’ are little more than thinly disguised PR jobs? How many celebs ‘caught’ by the telephoto lens on holiday, when mowing the lawn, shopping or picking up the kids from school are actually the result of deals with the tabloid papers to prevent intrusive journalism (such as door-stepping which, thankfully, seems to have died as an acceptable activity)?

Who should draw the line between private and public life in the media? Journalists – and failing that – the courts. Who else is there – apart from the government?

David Northmore is a self-employed investigative journalist and author.

The interviewees answered a LIRE media group questionnaire on free speech, privacy and human rights.

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

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