The "half-lives" of celebrities: a theory of phone-hacking

12 April 2011

In today's Independent Dominic Lawson offers an interesting view on how phone-hacking was allowed to take hold at the News of the World.

He attributes the practice to the "dehumanising process" whereby journalists cease to regard celebrities as "real" people, regarding them instead as "cut-outs" without normal feelings.  He notes that celebrities exist "in a strange half-life, apparently known to millions who in fact do not really know them at all" and suggests that this permits the public, including journalists, to behave towards them in ways they would never dream of behaving towards their own friends and associates.

In Lawson's view, phone-hacking journalists probably figured that their activities would not necessarily attract the disapproval of their readers even if they knew what was going on: the public does not feel as strongly about celebrities' loss of privacy as it does about intrusions into the private lives of more ordinary people.  While Lawson is unhappy with the situation, he is also realistic, disclosing that his celebrity sister Nigella deals with "grotesque coverage" of herself by pretending that the person being written about is nothing to do with her.  (It has been suggested by the Guardian, as reported on the BBC website, that Nigella may herself have been a victim of phone-hacking.)

Whether or not the public thinks those in the public eye have weaker claims to privacy than the rest of us, the courts have little patience with such a notion.  In Campbell, Lord Hoffmann said the fact that Naomi Campbell had "a long and symbiotic relationship with the media" would not "in itself" justify publication of private information about her: "A person may attract or even seek publicity about some aspects of his or her life without creating any public interest in the publication of personal information about other matters."

In relation to such a direct intrusion as the unauthorised interception of voicemail messages, it is unthinkable that the law would distinguish between individuals on account of their public profile.  If such activity were ever to be justifiable, it would have to be for some reason other than the victim's celebrity.

See further section 3.3 of The Privacy Law Handbook

Dominic Lawson's interesting view in today's Independent