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section heading icon     gawking

This page considers the often fuzzy boundaries between public and private space in the 'surveillance age', including questions about celebrity culture, tabloid journalism and community expectations.

It covers -

section marker icon     introduction

Community ambivalence about privacy is demonstrated by what is claimed as the rise of the 'tabloid tv generation', with a supposedly insatiable appetite for information about the private lives of other people - whether celebrities or demons (eg terrorists and paedophiles).

In fact the 'gawker culture' is apparent from at least the 1890s (with the rise of Yellow Journalism in the US, Germany and elsewhere) and arguably from the 1750s or elsewhere. What is different about our time is

  • scope for covert and non-covert surveillance by governments, journalists, private investigators and others
  • the emergence of mechanisms such as anti-paparazzi legislation after disquiet over the complicity of consumers and publishers in problematical media self-regulation.

section marker icon     owning celebrities

As a starting point for thinking about community 'ownership' of public figures see Leo Braudy's The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1986), Daniel Solove's perceptive The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2007), Clay Calvert's Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy & Peering in Modern Culture (Boulder: Westview 2000), John Thompson's Political Scandal: Power & Visibility in the Media Age (London: Polity 2000), Janna Malamud Smith's Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life (Reading: Perseus 1997), Rod Tiffen's Scandals, Media, Politics and Corruption in Contemporary Australia (Sydney: Uni of NSW Press 1999) and Richard Schickel's Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity in America (Chicago: Dee 2000).

Notions that celebrities are fair game post mortem - either because any property rights expire or because they are no longer in a position to bite back - are identifiable from at least the Roman era. 18th century pornographer and publisher Edmund Curll, notorious for publishing the correspondence of literary celebrities while the authors were fresh in the grave, provoked a sardonic comment from Alexander Pope's friend John Arbuthnot that "Mr Curll has added new terrors to death." The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2008) by Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy Gilfoyle & Helen Horowitz demonstrates that some scandal sheets did not wait until the celebrity was dead.

It is a terror that has remained. Authors such as James and Mann thus conducted pre-emptive bonfires of letters and manuscripts, a tactic captured by William Golding in The Paper Man (London: Faber 1984). Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates & the Rise of Biography (London: Faber 1994) by Ian Hamilton extends the discussion in Smith's Private Matters. It complements his In Search Of J D Salinger (London: Heinemann 1988), an account of how the famously reclusive author stymied an attempted biography by refusing permission to print his letters or publish extensive quotes. Hamilton could read the letters - in academic archives and private collections - but not publish.

Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman (New York: Knopf 1994) more strikingly compared the biographer at work to

the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.

The loot is of course acquired by consumers such as anyone reading this page.

section marker icon     the market for sensation

Although it is fashionable to decry an invasive media - journalists often rate lower than used-car or insurance salesmen in consumer surveys - respect for privacy alas does not seem to extend to the lives of those enduring the 15 minutes of fame.

Jeannette Walls' Dish: How Gossip Became The News & The News Became Just Another Show (New York: Perennial 2000), Scandal: A Scurrilous History of Gossip (New York: Atlantic 2002) by Roger Wilkes, Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity, and American Politics (New York: Morrow 1998) by Gailand Collins, Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle: The Rules of Scandal in Japan and the United States (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2006) by Mark West and Media Scandals: Morality & Desire in the Popular Culture Marketplace (New York: Columbia Uni Press 1998) edited by James Lull & Stephen Hinerman offer an introduction to gossip in US media culture.

There is a shorter but more thoughtful account in Tabloid Journalism & the Public Sphere (txt) by Anna Maria J�nsson & Henrik �rnebring, complemented by Iain Calder's memoir The Untold Story: My 20 Years Running The National Enquirer (New York: Miramax 2004) and How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (London: Fourth Estate 2004) by Francis Wheen.

For Australia an historical perspective is provided by Kirsten McKenzie's Scandal In The Colonies (North Carlton: Melbourne Uni Press 2004), David McNight's 'The Investigative Tradition in Australian Journalism 1945-1965' in Journalism: Print, Politics & Popular Culture (St Lucia: Uni of Queensland Press 1999) edited by Ann Curthoys & Julianne Schultz and Margaret Simons' The Contentmakers: Understanding the Media in Australia (Camberwell: Penguin 2007).

Tabloid Journalism: An Annotated Bibliography of English-language Sources (Westport: Greenwood 1996) by Gerald Greenberg is of particular value. For media ethics see the EU-centred EthicNet, the Poynter Media Ethics Resources page and the discussion in Claude-Jean Bertrand's Media Ethics & Accountability Systems (Piscataway: Transaction 2000).

For tabloids see I Watched A Wild Hog Eat My Baby! - A Colorful History of Tabloids and Their Cultural Impact (Amherst: Prometheus 2001) by Bill Sloan, For Enquiring Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids (Knoxville: Uni of Tennessee Press 1999) by Elizabeth Bird, Peter Chippindale & Chris Horrie's Stick It Up Your Punter: The Rise and Fall of the Sun (London: Simon & Schuster 1991) and the deliciously neomarxist Grossed-Out Surgeon Vomits Inside Patient! An Insider's Look at Supermarket Tabloids (Venice: Feral House 1997) by Jim Hogshire.

Other insider accounts include Scooped! (New York: Columbia Uni Press 1999) by David Krajicek, George Bernard's Inside The National Inquirer (Port Washington: Ashley 1977) and Sally Taylor's interviews in Shock! Horror!: the Tabloids in Action (London: Bantam 1991).

Neal Gabler's Winchell: Gossip, Power & the Culture of Celebrity (New York: Knopf 1994) and Herman Klurfeld's Behind the Lines: The World of Drew Pearson (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall 1968) complement Jack Anderson's Confessions of a Muckraker (New York: Random 1979), Drew Pearson's Diaries 1949-59 (New York: Holt Rinehart 1974). Fred Inglis' uneven People's Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2002) "offers to reorder a galaxy of starring and not-so-starring, more dimly significant names in a new historical constellation".

For tabloid/trash tv see Tabloid Television: Popular Journalism and the 'Other News' (New York: Routledge 1998) by John Langer, Tabloid Baby: An Uncensored Account of Revolution That Gave Birth to 21st Century Television News Broadcasting (New York: Celebrity Books 1999) by Burt Kearns, Live TV, Tellybrats & Topless Darts: the Uncut Story of Tabloid Television (London: Simon & Schuster 1999) by Chris Horrie & Adam Nathan and The Money Shot: Trash, Class & the Making of TV Talk Shows (Chicago: Chicago Uni Press 2002) by Laura Grindstaf.

Michael Levine's The Princess & the Package: Exploring the Love-Hate Relationship Between Diana and the Media (Los Angeles: Renaissance 1998) explored claims that Princess Diana was 'killed' by an intrusive media, suggesting that exploitation was consensual.

section marker icon     taming the media circus?

Two starting points for considering industry self-regulation and government regulation are Deborah Kirkman's thesis Whither the Australian Press Council: The Formation, Function & Future of the Council regarding the fierce bad rabbit known as the APC and Richard Shannon's A Press Free & Responsible (London: John Murray 2001) regarding the APC's UK counterpart.

The Privacy guide points to studies of privacy principles, reports and specific legislation in Australia and overseas. A major theme is the tension between community and personal interests.

Voltaire supposedly observed that media "scandal and scurrilities" are the "bad fruits of a very good tree called liberty." Lord Justice Glidewell in the 1991 Kaye v Robertson case criticised media intrusions and commented that

It is well-known that in English law there is no right to privacy, and accordingly there is no right of action for breach of a person's privacy. The facts of the present case are a graphic illustration of the desirability of Parliament considering whether and in what circumstances statutory provision can be made to protect the privacy of individuals.

The 1997 UK Privacy Act subsequently offered some protection but, like the Australian Act, still relies heavily on media self-regulation.

In Australia the November 2001 High Court decision as part of litigation by Lenah Game Meats Pty Ltd against the (Lenah sought an injunction to prevent the national broadcaster from showing unauthorised film of possums being slaughtered in its abattoir) potentially opens the way for a test case regarding damages for unjustified invasion of privacy.

The Court commented that

having regard to current conditions in this country, and developments of the law in other common law jurisdictions, the time is ripe for consideration whether a tort of invasion of privacy should be recognised in this country, or whether the legislatures should be left to determine whether provisions for a remedy for it should be made

In the US the First Amendment has been invoked to protect online and offline media coverage of personal lives - Matt Drudge for example has been criticised as merrily peddling unsubstantiated rumours. Most restrictions have been local, such as California's 1998 Personal Privacy Protection Act, promoted as the first US law against overly aggressive paparazzi ('stalkerazzi').

Key Supreme Court decisions are those in the 1974 Cantrell v Forest City case, 1967 Time v Hill case and the 1975 Cox Broadcasting Corp. v Cohn case.

The most effective response to media invasions of privacy may, of course, simply involve not favouring the particular publication with your eyeballs. Gossip columnist Nigel Dempster once gloated that "there is a holiday in my heart when I discover another marriage breaking up" - arguable consumers shouldn't go on the same package tour.

section marker icon     e-stranger danger

Community ambivalence is also evident in proposals for public access to crime registers under the auspices of law enforcement agencies or 'concerned citizen' groups.

A more detailed discussion of those registers is provided elsewhere on this site.

section marker icon     media and marketing ethics

Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film & Television (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1988) edited by Larry Gross & John Stuart considers the intersection between privacy, free speech and intellectual property.

The brief 1998 article (PDF) The Developing Right of Publicity by Robert Labate & Jonathan Jennings considers US state legislation aimed at preventing the unauthorized commercial use of an individual's name or likeness, giving that person (or their estate) an exclusive right to license the use of their identity for commercial purposes.

The media and privacy are discussed in our Privacy Guide here; intellectual property 'rights of publicity' are discussed in our IP Guide here. Questions of unauthorised photographs - covertly obtained or otherwise - are explored here, with a more detailed coverage of paparazzi here.

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version of May 2008
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics