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Is this really the “line”? by Patricia Sanchez-Abril

For over a hundred years, society – journalists, politicians, and judges alike — has been confounded over the elusive “line” between the private and public. For the past ten years or so, the emergence of technology, social media, and an intrepid press has intensified this debate. Critics and fearmongers have heralded the end of “privacy”; while tech and media industry leaders have celebrated a more transparent, social world.

Examples of our constant negotiation with this line abound. In just one “not-necessarily-slow-news-week”, we watched a presidential candidate speak openly about her miscarriage, we become conversational in the family secrets of an accused murderer, and we are bombarded by the sordid details of dalliances, indiscretions, and even fluids, of an interminable list of politicians. The UK, as we’ve known, has also struggled with defining the “privacy” line from legal, normative, and ethical perspectives. There, the debate usually focused on footballers, royals and the Beckham marriage. On both sides of the pond, all indications pointed that there was no end to the invasions into private lives for kicks and profit.

Until recently, Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid has pushed the “line” between public and private in such a way that we have, for the first time in a while, some concrete indication of the limits of society’s tolerance for intrusion. For decades, London tabloids have been known to employ surreptitious tactics to uncover juicy stories about anyone who might remotely capture the public’s morbid curiosity. In 2005, the world discovered the details of the dark practices employed by tabloids, including the voicemail hacking of royals, politicians, and celebrities. After multiple investigations, litigation, and debate, wrists were slapped, fines were paid, and a few months were served in prison, but the climate of intrusion did not change.

With the latest scandal, the world has finally been confronted with a privacy invasion it would not accept. Evidence surfaced that in 2002 News of the World hacked into the cell phone of Milly Dowler, a missing 13-year old British schoolgirl, and listened to — even deleted — some messages while her anguished family awaited news from her. Amidst public fury, the 168-year old tabloid was forced to commit a very public suicide this morning.

The Milly Dowler case was the perfect storm of private facts. Milly was (1) a minor, (2) repeatedly described as a “schoolgirl,” (3) who was the victim of a heinous crime; her family was (4) not famous or royal, (5) unimaginably grief-stricken through no fault of their own, and (6) reserved in their dealings with the press. One must wonder what would’ve happened if any one of this deck of cards of privacy were different. What if Milly was a royal or a celebrity? History tells us that the public and even the law would be more forgiving of the intrusion. What if she had run away or been a “bad girl”? Multiple recent examples indicate she may have been entitled to less privacy in the public’s eye for this hypothetical reason. What if her family had engaged the press or challenged its coverage of the crime? Or if Milly had survived and gone on to write a book about her abduction? Surely, all of these hypothetical facts would have mitigated the public’s outrage that led to the tabloid’s closing.

What does this case tell us about the “line” between public and private? On one hand, it reassures us that this line does, indeed exist. Contrary to the eulogists of privacy, we now have evidence that there is a line between public and private that shouldn’t be crossed, even in the name of public interest. Maybe the lesson is that death and mourning are still sacred precincts, or maybe that journalism is too intrusive when its tactics affect an ongoing investigation. On the other, this case reminds us that the public/private line cannot continue to atrophy in a world where multiple human rights charters assure the dignity of all.

Whatever the lessons about the substance of privacy, one thing is certain: this case underlines the fact that we as a society are too discriminatory regarding privacy entitlements. We tolerate – and pay for– egregious privacy invasions of those who are super-wealthy, famous, or otherwise interesting to us so long as we can’t imagine ourselves in their well-heeled shoes and the resulting stories entertain us. We somehow feel entitled to every sordid bit of information about them, no matter the source or newsgathering tactic. This creates a slippery slope that has contributed to a climate forgiving of unimaginable intrusions in the name journalism. In the end, a newspaper dies as a scapegoat, but its underling practices and the demand for private information endures. We should not lose focus that it is up to us as a society to define the line between private and public in order to protect our own privacy.