Privacy, Public Interest and PR

An individual’s right to privacy versus the public’s right to information is a tussle that recently came to the fore once more. The UK media got over-excited about two “private life” stories and indulged in some rather disproportionate reporting.  First we learnt a celebrity won a ban to stop press revelations of his extramarital threesome in England & Wales only to find his identity blown in the US media, and shortly thereafter in Scotland, as well as on social media. This served to highlight the limitations of UK privacy laws in a global media age, whilst reinforcing the value, in certain circumstances, of PR practices over litigation.

Subsequent newspaper revelations over MP John Whittingdale’s liaisons with a sex worker, prior to his appointment as Culture Minister, and his relationship with a former model, caused a similar media furore.

In both cases the newspapers argued public interest gives them the right to publish.  The Sun on Sunday contended that wealthy public figures who use PR agencies to promote favourable personal and family reputations should not be allowed, in the face of negative stories, to use their resources to prevent the unwanted coverage. The paper remonstrates that it is a matter of public interest for such hypocrisy to be disclosed, and an injunction wholly unjustified when the information is already in the public domain.

In the second case, it was argued that some sections of the media had suppressed news of Whittingdale’s relationships so as to leverage control over his handling of press regulation. Once this theory was debunked, there came a public interest spat over Whittingdale’s alleged conflict of interest for not declaring to the PM the ‘sword of Damocles’ was hanging over him as the press had the story of his dominatrix liaison at a time he accepted the role of press muzzler-in-chief. It gave rise to the perception of compromising his public role capacity.

Regardless of the legal issues involved, there are three salient PR lessons:

  1. Internationally-recognised celebrities seeking privacy injunctions invariably end up ensuring their action has the opposite effect in news terms. The media cry foul and give the story more attention than it would ordinarily merit. The story gets greater traction and more members of the public end up knowing about a story than might have been the case if one of the tabloids had just given it the “one-hit wonder” treatment and the PRs had provided an alternative narrative.

Privacy lawyers argue that preventing publication in English media has been important in halting the tide of press intrusion and that most ordinary people don’t care about such stories. However, on this point lawyers and PR professionals diverge.  The PR that can successfully dissuade both client and lawyer from litigation is one that deserves her pay.

  • These story-types are generally triggered by background players with their own agendas. The BBC and Hacked off are accused of overblowing the Whittingdale news. Fleet Street, still reeling from Leveson, will forever resent the ‘straight jacket’ of a privacy injunction. Identification of the story drivers helps PRs assess reputation management briefs.
  • The Court of Appeal’s judgment overturning the injunction in the celebrity case demonstrates the inability of our laws to cope with a fast-paced global media age. We await the Supreme Court’s final decision. Yet the overriding PR lesson is there is no such thing as local any more. Reputation management is now a multi media and cross jurisdictional game.

Yet it is no victory for the world of PR that UK privacy laws may no longer be fit for purpose. The conflicting rights of privacy and public interest remain as nuanced as ever.  In the end, it’s the message crafted in the face of uncomfortable truths that determines the lasting impact of unhelpful reporting.

28 April 2016

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