Two stories emerged this week regarding the private lives of elite sportsmen: rugby player Gareth Thomas and cricketer Ben Stokes.
Thomas felt obliged to reveal his HIV status after a journalist from an unnamed tabloid threatened to out him. Worse, that reporter approached his parents for comment on the matter before they were aware of the diagnosis, depriving Thomas of choosing how to conduct that delicate conservation.
Earlier in the week the Sun likewise reported that Stokes’ half-brother and half-sister had been shot dead by their dad before the cricketer was born. The story, which ended in the dad’s suicide, was covered by the New Zealand press at the time, but earnt condemnation from Stokes, who said it was “hard to find words that adequately describe such low and despicable behaviour, disguised as journalism.”
Both stories involve the parents’ privacy, perhaps moreso than their sons’. It is thus striking that Thomas said he would not have revealed the story without the tabloid pressure arguing, “It’s got nothing to do with anyone else.” By contrast, Stokes acknowledged that “my public profile brings with it consequences for me that I accept entirely.”
It is easy to sympathise for both men, but harder to draw lines about what should be beyond publishing when it comes to celebrities’ private lives and, by connection, those of friends and family.
European authorities have been gradually strengthening the right to privacy, particularly over data held by corporations, but also in relation to the media. The EU Court of Justice’s May 2014 ruling on “the right to be forgotten” allowed people to ask search engines (mostly Google) to stop unflattering news stories from appearing after certain search terms if the information was “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” – all contestable terms.
It is easy to see why celebrities might want to prevent similarly unflattering or personal stories appearing in public. One fact confirmed during the New International phone hacking trial was that celebrities want press access on their own terms. This hardly surprising, but hardly reasonable either.
The traditional retreat for proponents of these kind of privacy rights is that such information is not in the “public interest”, by which is meant an enlightened, civic interest rather than stories that titillate without wider social purpose. Whether this can be sensibly defined is practically the entire argument.
Given the success of the Mail Online’s infamous sidebar of shame, the public remains interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and this is unlikely to change. And it’s worth pointing out many celebrities are quite happy to play to the paps to keep their name in the public eye.
Alongside this ambiguity, there is the fact that any privacy law risks protecting public figures from the journalistic scrutiny favoured by the high minds. It may be that public exposure of the likes of Stokes and Thomas is the price that must be paid for a useful press.