Should the media draw a line between the public and personal lives of politicians and celebrities?
IT was like “falling from a skyscraper”: France’s former first lady Valerie Trierweiler described how she felt when she learned of President Francois Hollande’s alleged love affair.
It is not easy when a relationship hits a bad patch, and even more difficult when it draws uninvited spectators.
Even Madame Trierweiler – who as an ex-journalist would understand the media frenzy – became so stressed by the glare of the spotlight on her relationship problems that she was hospitalised.
Closer to home, the affairs of the heart of Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah Anwar raised a media storm when The Star Online broke the news of Nurul filing for divorce from her husband of 10 years, Raja Ahmad Shahrir Iskandar.
The media glare led them to issue a press statement to appeal for privacy: “We are deeply saddened by the undignified intrusion into our private lives and will do our utmost to work out our continuing union... Our family is our priority, as is our time together, so we thank all our supporters for their kind understanding, and appeal to all to accord us privacy.”
According to Nurul’s political secretary Fahmi Fadzil, the media seem to have stopped calling her after the couple’s heartfelt joint press statement.
But he concedes he is not sure if the media were respecting her privacy as requested or whether they have found better news elsewhere.
As anyone in the press would know, someone is already on that beat and just waiting for her or his big scoop. And as much as they want to deny it, many are waiting to read the development of the story, no matter how voyeuristic it seems.
Umno Youth New Media Unit chairperson Tun Faisal Ismail Aziz feels it is “wishful thinking” for politicians and celebrities to ask for the media and Netizens not to intrude in their privacy.
“By right, the privacy of a person’s life should be respected not only by mainstream media, but by everyone. Yet, somehow for politicians and celebrities, including figures in whatever fields such as sports, business and others, the line (between public life and private life) is very thin,” he says.
Supporting the media’s decision to publish the news on Nurul Izzah’s alleged marital problems, he says, “It’s only news. People would like to know anything about their idols, celebrities, figures, not only the good things that the person shares through whatever media but also the bad things about the person.
“Of course, to sensationalise the news could be right or could also be wrong, depending on the degree the news is spun.”
Tun Faisal did not miss the chance to splash the story on his blog either.
When asked about how he would feel if the media intruded on his own marriage, he admits that no one would want their private life to be probed into, especially the worst parts of it. “No one ever minds sharing the best ‘sides’ of them, though.”
Admittedly, the explosion of social media has eroded what personal space had survived zealous paparazzi and reality television.
And with so many people willingly exposing their private lives and more to the world, does it not only make appeals and arguments for privacy ring hollow?
For Tricia Yeoh, chief operating officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), privacy is even more important today because it is fast disappearing.
“The outside world and technology are infringing on our personal lives now, and this is why it is important for Malaysia to have privacy laws (like in France and the United States),” she says.
Yeoh adds that politicians need to be aware that their lives will be an open book but, like others, they too are entitled to a right to privacy.
“In principle, it should not matter whether you are a private or public figure, you are entitled to a right to privacy.”
Democratic rights advocacy group Empower Malaysia is another who thinks privacy is even more crucial in this day and age.
Says its Communications and Media officer, Yasmin Masidi: “The severe erosion of privacy by the entertainment media and the misuse of technology makes it even more crucial to protect the right to privacy.
She highlights that there are now forms of violence against women that are essentially breaches of privacy: “revenge porn”, for example, where men upload videos of women in intimate situations online as a form of revenge after the women ended the relationships.
“These videos are often taken and disseminated without the women’s consent. Women have also been blackmailed over photos and similar videos, with men demanding sex or money. In addition, as we see in cases such as that of the Steubenville rape case in the United States, breaches of privacy can also further escalate the violence already suffered by women.”
Tun Faisal agrees that it is all about control.
“The difference is that when we show who we are, good or bad, on social media, it is our choice, but to have our bad sides published or broadcast on mainstream media or others’ social media accounts, it is not ours. It depends on the values that others, such as journalists and editors, carry and were brought up with.”
For Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) director Sonia Randhawa, it is the choice of what makes news.
Granted, ignoring the story when it is already out there is not an option, she says, but the mainstream media should still have taken the high road instead of joining the media circus.
“The question is, how do you report it? They could have taken the upper moral ground and used it to point out to people this is why we have newspapers – because they report on news that have national interest rather than prurient interests.”
One of the justifications for the continuation of the mainstream media is that they are different from blogs and social media, she stresses.
“They are professional, they report on issues and topics that have news value and they check their facts. So, they cannot behave like blogs,” she says, adding that there is a place for both, but “what is posted on the blogs should not be confused as news.”
Sonia says “It’s what people want” should also not be used to justify news reports on people’s private lives.
“We have journalistic standards in Malaysia, we do not put things in the paper when it contravenes the social standards. For example, we do not have topless girls on Page Three, so standards are set.”
Sonia strongly believes that Nurul Izzah getting a divorce should not be a news story.
“It is important to put politicians up to higher standards of accountability, but we need to see if the matter at hand affects their ability to make legislation or carry out their duties. And her personal life in this case has no impact on her abilities as a parliamentarian.”
Examples of personal affairs that should be made public, she opines, are cases of a public figure who takes a stand against polygamy but has a second wife; or someone who claims to be a feminist but discriminates against women – that is wrong and hypocritical, and should be exposed.
Activist and citizen journalist Anil Netto agrees that personal family problems should only be reported if they involve public interest in the real sense.
“Public figures are in the public domain, but some personal family problems should be left alone.”
His main issue with the reports, he adds, is the “fairness” of the media.
“Okay, her personal situation may be mentioned in a brief report, but is there is a need to prolong the issue for a few days?
“Care must also be taken that media organisations don’t milk such personal issues for their owners’ political advantage, especially as Nurul is seen in some circles as future Pakatan leadership material,” he says.