ON AUCTION: Privacy in the Public Sphere

The most prestigious journalism award, The Pulitzer Prizes, honors “meritorious public service rendered” in the field of journalism (The Pulitzer Prizes, n. d.). In the category of investigative journalism, past awards have gone to journalists who exposed the Portland Governor of sexual abuse (The Pulitzer Prizes, 2005)  and the United States government’s hegemonic justification of the Iraq War (The Pulitzer Prizes, 2009). To what extent must a journalist go in order to render “meritorious public service”? 

Neil Goldschmidt, former Portland Governor, confirmed allegations of sexual abuse - The Telegraph, 2011

Habermas argues that the role of journalists is to “facilitate” citizens to make informed decisions concerning aspects that affect their citizenry rights (Ferree et. al, 2002, p. 306), in other words, to sustain the public sphere. By holding accountable government officials who were appointed to protect the rights of the people, journalists preside over the execution of rights. Investigative journalism necessitates investigation, and hence invasion of privacy to a certain extent. The News of the World phone-hacking scandal redirected attention on the dilemma of the public’s right to know versus an individual’s right to privacy (The Telegraph, 2011). 

Andy Coulson, editor of News of the World, arrested for illegal phone hacking - The Telegraph, 2011.

                Privacy, like all other rights, is a claim right. It only functions when the right is protected (Hart, 1955), meaning, others surrender their right to invade the rightholder’s privacy. The Natural Law Theory postulates that in a state of nature, everyone has the right to do everything. Rights are unprotected and are hence ineffective (Hart, 1955). Therefore people submit themselves under legal systems by surrendering certain rights in order to guarantee the protection of other rights. Privacy is a right mankind owe to each other (Strahilevitz, 2005). Unless “charged with the duty to conduct an investigation” (Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act, 1996), the explicit invasion of another’s privacy such as hacking into one’s voicemail, is a violation of that person’s right. Such is the case of News of The World when its editor hacked into Prince William’s voicemail to expose but a “knee injury” (The Telegraph, 2011), or the disgrace elicited in misleading public opinion when its journalist deleted voicemail messages of Milly Dowler in order to “make room for more” (The Telegraph, 2011). The aforementioned conducts violated the very rights they were appointed to protect. In defending their positions by advocating the public’s need to know, journalists should demarcate their responsibilities as a professional from that of other professions. Consequences of journalistic practices should never include the deprivation of citizen’s rights. The absolute adornment of deontological ethics – performing one’s duty without considering its consequences (Freeman, 1994) – is destructive to a journalist. 



1) Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act, 1996, London

2) Ferree, M. M., Gamson, W. A., Gerhards, J. & Rucht, D., 2002, ‘Four models of the public sphere in modern democracies’, Theory and Society, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 289 – 314, viewed 4 November 2011, <http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.taylors.edu.my/stable/pdfplus/658129.pdf>

3) Freeman, S., 1994, ‘Utilitarianism, deontology, and the priority of right’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 313 – 349, viewed 12 November 2011, <http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.taylors.edu.my/stable/pdfplus/2265463.pdf>

4) Habermas, J., Lennox, S. & Lennox, F., 1964, ‘The public sphere: An encyclopaedia article (1964)’, New German Critique, no. 3, pp. 49 – 55, viewed 11 November 2011, <http://www.jstor.org.ezlibproxy.unisa.edu.au/stable/pdfplus/487737.pdf?acceptTC=true>

5) Hart, H. L. A., 1955, ‘Are there any natural rights?’, The Philosophical Review, vol. 64, no. 2, pp. 175 – 191, viewed 4 November 2011, <http://www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/hart.pdf>

6) Strahilevitz, L. J., 2005, ‘A social networks theory of privacy’, The University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 72, no. 3, pp. 919 – 988, viewed 4 November 2011, >http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.taylors.edu.my/stable/pdfplus/4495516.pdf>

7) The Pulitzer Prizes, n. d., The medal: Pulitzer gold, viewed 5 November 2011, <http://www.pulitzer.org/theMedal>

8) The Pulitzer Prizes, 2005, The 2005 Pulitzer Prize winners: Investigative reporting, viewed 11 November 2011, <http://www.pulitzer.org/citation/2005-Investigative-Reporting>

9) The Pulitzer Prizes, 2009, The 2009 Pulitzer Prize winners: Investigative reporting, viewed 10 November 2011, <http://www.pulitzer.org/citation/2009-Investigative-Reporting>

10) The Telegraph, 2009, ‘Prince’s mobile phone hacked’, 2 September, viewed 7 November 2011, < http://www.telegraph.co.uk>

11) The Telegraph, 2011, ‘Phone hacking: Timeline of the scandal’, 10 November, viewed 5 November 2011, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/phone-hacking/8634176/Phone-hacking-timeline-of-a-scandal.html>


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