It’s a nose for tracking down, not news, but
celebrities’ personal lives that appears to
drive certain sections of the press: is this an unabashed pandering to vicarious needs or downright intrusion of privacy?
If you have been reading about the British phone-hacking scandal that led first to the closure of The News of The World, Britain’s largest-selling newspaper and, then, to the Leveson Inquiry, where such figures as Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair have been testifying, then you may be forgiven for thinking that the scandal is about the relationship between politicians and newspaper proprietors.
And certainly, to a large extent, that is how the press have reported the issue. Blair was questioned about his links with Rupert Murdoch and Murdoch himself has become the totemic figure at the centre of this affair. Much of the reporting in British papers these days is less about the scandal itself and more about Murdoch personally.
Nobody denies that, as Tony Blair told the Leveson Inquiry, the British press has become such a strong feature of that country’s public life that Prime Ministers recognise that they need to mollify the media. Blair said that he took what he called a strategic decision to manage Murdoch and the rest of the press rather than to confront the media head-on.
But what this characterisation ignores is that the scandal is only partly about proprietors and politicians. At its heart is a more fundamental issue, one that haunts journalism all over the world: the right to privacy, especially when it comes to celebrities.
We live in an age where celebrity news is more important than ever before. Newspapers, magazines and many TV channels sell on the basis of celebrity coverage. A shot of Angelina Jolie’s leg poking out from her dress at the Oscars will be relayed around the world and reproduced a million times in the blink of an eye. A picture of Aishwarya Rai cradling her baby as she arrives at Cannes is front-page news for any publication with an interest in Hindi cinema or Indian celebrities.
It is no good arguing about the rights and wrongs of the celebrity culture. For better or for worse, this obsession is here to stay. What is debateable, however, is how far journalists can go in their coverage of celebrities and their lives.
This is not necessarily a new debate. In the 1970s, Marlon Brando punched celebrity photographer Ron Galella for intrusively following him around. At around the same time, Jackie Kennedy took out a court injunction preventing Galella from coming too close to her. Since then, countless other stars have tangled with photographers, often with violent consequences.
The debate reached a crescendo in the 1990s,
after photographers chased the Mercedes carrying Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed into a tunnel in Paris and, perhaps, contributed to the crash in which
both Dodi and Diana lost their lives. At that stage,
the outpouring of public revulsion was so massive that photographers held back for the next couple
Alas, this was not to last.
The current phone-hacking scandal began when
it was discovered that
journalists were hacking into the telephones of Princes William and Harry, Diana’s sons. Police raided a private detective called Glen Mulcaire who, it transpired, had been hired by Fleet Street tabloids to hack into the phones of thousands of celebrities and to investigate their private lives.
Such stars as Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller and Steve Coogan have claimed that the intrusions not just violated their privacy but that they also caused crises in their personal lives. For instance, Sienna Miller says that she found secrets she had shared with only one or two people had made their way to the front pages of the tabloids. Naturally, she concluded that the people she had confided in had betrayed her faith and cut them off. It never occurred to her that The News of the World was hacking her phone.
Worse still, there is evidence to suggest that police officers were in the pay of the tabloids and cooperated with them. Hugh Grant says that if there was ever a burglary at his house, he thought very carefully about calling the police. When the police were informed, they took their time about arriving.
In the interim, press
reporters and photographers quickly arrived to cover the burglary. Clearly, they had been tipped off
by the cops.
So, the phone-hacking scandal is not really about politicians or proprietors. It is about the trade-off between fame and privacy in the modern world.
All too often, journalists take the line that if a person chooses to be in the public eye then he or she forfeits the right to privacy. The law does not agree which is why so many people have been jailed for hacking phones. But there are ways of intruding on the private lives of celebrities that do not necessarily involve breaking the law: chasing Princess Diana’s Mercedes, for example. What about such intrusions? Are they legitimate? Or should they be banned?
The Leveson Inquiry will provide some answers for the British media. And if those answers are good ones, intuitively accepted by most readers, then Leveson’s recommendations may well become the global norm.
And celebrity journalism will never be the same again.
(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow
Vir’s other writings, visit