Do Public Figures have Privacy Rights?

Updated on July 11, 2018

Under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 we are offered “protection for a person’s private and family life, home and correspondence from arbitrary interference by the State,” whereby our privacy can only be breached if a number of conditions are satisfied. The key point though is that it only applies to the State; invasion of privacy by another person or company is not a breach of our human rights. As newspapers and tabloids are privately owned they are not in breach of the human rights act if they invade someone’s privacy to get a story. However Article 8 does make it clear that phone tapping, trespassing, breach of confidence and similar activities are illegal, so if a journalist is found to have used one of those methods then they should expect the suitable repercussions. Courts and judges have to act in accordance with Article 8 so while there is not yet any law governing privacy, precedents are constantly being set concerning slanderous and libel actions for people who believe their privacy has been breached. I imagine a common consensus would be that although there are no privacy laws protecting public figures from media invasion, there is something morally reprehensible about it.

It seems widely accepted that there are different degrees of justification for the invasion of privacy, depending on the position you hold in the public eye. Firstly there are people who hold a position of power and responsibility, ranging from national power (e.g. politicians) to local responsibility (e.g. teachers and clergymen). Secondly there are celebrities; people who choose to be in the public eye but not because they hold a position of responsibility. The third group is ‘regular’ people, who are thrust into the spotlight through a famous relative or by an event or disaster that they were part of or witnessed.

People in a Position of Responsibility

Concerning the first group, while politicians are obvious candidates, it also includes businessmen, and, on a more local level, teachers, clergymen and policemen. The definition of privacy (according to the OED) states that people should be “free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right.” In my opinion, taking a position of power takes away from this area of privacy. It is proportional, in that at the highest level of power (politicians) your actions will necessarily be of public attention, whereas at the lower level (teachers) the majority of your actions should not be of interest to the public.

It seems obvious that there are areas of one’s life that someone would wish to keep private but would be in the public interest to disclose. There are some cases of media invasion that are completely justified. The public need to know if a politician is abusing his position, accepting bribes, or has a hidden agenda that could lead him to act in his own interests rather than in the national interest. A good example of this would be the scandal in the UK involving David Blunkett (Labour MP) in 2004 when it emerged that he had fast-tracked a visa application for the nanny of his ex-lover. I take this to be an abuse of power, as he took advantage of his position for a personal favour. Although he denied having any part of it, Blunkett recognised that he had to take responsibility and consequently stepped down as Home Secretary.

Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron
Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron

It is difficult to know whether there is justification for invasion of privacy in cases where information about someone’s past is divulged. Take, for instance, the case in 2005 when it was reported that then current UK Prime Minister David Cameron had taken drugs at school. He refused to comment until 2007 when he admitted to it, but defended himself saying “I didn’t spend the early years of my life thinking: ‘I better not do anything because one day I might be a politician.’” It is my opinion that events occurring in someone’s past should remain there as they are not a realistic reflection of what that person is like now. Contrast this with Charles Kennedy in 2004 who had drink-related problems which led to a lack of support from his party, meaning he had to resign. In this instance the media intrusion, I think, was necessary because his problem was affecting the way he did his job and revealing it was in the public interest.

A final point to mention about this group (and particularly about politicians) is that we, possibly unfairly, expect them to be the image of perfection. I think this is why the press are so keen to dig up any piece of dirt they can about them. We seem to insist upon them being family orientated, living in a happy home, having never erred in their past. This is not only an unreasonable request, but it is not beneficial or representative to the majority of society. How can they be expected to make laws about divorce or drugs (for example) if no one has any experience them or their effects.

Privacy Rights for Celebrities

Before I talk about the celebrity group, I want to look at one particular area of both groups that I think is the biggest grey area. In Britain, more than anywhere, there seems to be this obsession with the sexual escapades of famous people, or of any people for that matter. It is my feeling that any kind of sexual activity carried out by someone in the public eye, is not the business of the public. This includes adultery which is always reported in the media. Not only is it unnecessary for the public to know every morbid detail of someone’s sex life, but it could also be detrimental to that person’s family, who have to deal with it in the public eye. This is where the line needs to be drawn between public interest and what the public find interesting.

As celebrities are not in a position of responsibility, the justification for media invasion does not apply to them abusing a position of power. It is harder to find a case where invasion is justified. The problem is that the media have to cater to what the public is interested in (rather than public interest). Politicians are only in the news in a non-political way if there is something potentially scandalous to say about them whereas celebrities are continuously in the news. If they are seen out shopping they are often photographed or it is just noted in some magazine that X was spotted shopping. There don’t seem to be any genuine grounds where invasion of privacy is actually in the public interest.

The negative points of media intrusion I guess are fairly obvious, but there is one positive worth mentioning. By publishing stories about an issue in someone’s private life, the press can actually rally support for that person. For example, in 2005 when Kylie Minogue was diagnosed with breast cancer, tabloids and magazines wrote articles about her, and her progress was tracked in the media. But this wasn’t done maliciously. People were genuinely concerned for her and by publishing those articles, her fans could see how she was doing and messages of support could find their way to her.

Chilean Miners
Chilean Miners

"Regular" People Thrust Into the Spotlight

Moving on to the third group, this could be a relative of a public figure or someone that has witnessed or been part of some event, for example, the miners in Chile. More often than not, these are cases of grief, where someone has been through or survived some kind of disaster. One would think that privacy rights are strong here and that there is no justification for invasion. Invasion of their privacy is comparable to the uncontrollable desire to stare at a car crash as you drive past, even though you know it’s wrong: “the fact that intruding into the private life of someone caught up in a news story may make for more entertaining or compelling news bears no ethical weight at all.”

So to sum up: although public figures have no legal rights to privacy from the media, there are an increasing number of cases where various tabloids have been reprimanded over privacy issues. There are circumstances where it seems justified for privacy to be overridden, the most obvious of these is when a person of responsibility is abusing a position of power. The thought here is that in fact they don’t really have a right to privacy in this area, even if they wish a deed to remain private. If a public figure has a personal problem that is affecting their ability to do their job then it seems that it is in the public interest to divulge this. All other areas of personal information, like previous drug use or affairs, seems to fall into the category of what the public is interested in. Journalists have to write about what the public want to read, so unnecessary media invasion often boils down to the public “need” for every bit of dirt on every public figure. As Mary Midgley says, we “[assume] that public figures must be black if they are not pure white.”

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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