Brian Edwards Media

Media Tip: Is there a Public Right to Know?


Journalists like to talk of the ‘public’s right to know’, but in most circumstances no such ‘right to know’ exists. In fact you are the one with a right – to conduct your personal and business affairs in privacy.

You forfeit that right if you break the law, if your behaviour invites public scandal or derision or if you have chosen celebrity.

The lawbreaker cannot expect to remain anonymous. Name suppression in criminal cases is anathema to the media and rightly so.

But you don’t have to break the law to forfeit your right to privacy. People who achieve public prominence, whether they seek it or not, are subject to greater media scrutiny than the average person. If, for example, you are the chief executive of a large company, or the executive director of a major organisation, or a prominent member of the clergy or the spokesperson for an influential lobby group, your words and deeds are likely to be of considerable interest to the media. This is particularly true if your words are at odds with  your deeds.

When Joe Bloggs has an affair and abandons his wife and children to shack up with a younger model, he is unlikely to be rung by the media for comment.

When the CEO of a large company has an affair and abandons her husband and children to shack up with her personal trainer, the average journalist may be titillated and keen to publish, but will hopefully be persuaded by his editor that it’s irrelevant to the CEO’s ability to run the company and nobody’s business but hers.

But when the Bishop of Waikikamukau or the head of Chastity Incorporated has an affair and leaves his wife and children for a younger model, the media are going to have a field day, and rightly so. The hypocrisy of those in public life is a valid subject of media scrutiny.

Candidates for public office can expect a greater degree of scrutiny than those who vote from them.  However, once they are elected the New Zealand media are respectful of the privacy of MPs and local body politicians .  They invariably know who’s playing away from home  – they just don’t print it. But the media will have no hesitation in exposing dishonesty, hypocrisy or schonky dealings, regardless of the importance of the office-holder.

Finally, those who court celebrity can expect little mercy from the media. The argument is relatively simple and has a certain logic to it: you cannot be selectively famous – you cannot enjoy the benefits of celebrity (money, adulation, privilege) and complain about your loss of privacy at the same time. That is having your cake and eating it too.

So if you’re not a law-breaker, a hypocrite, a dodgy politician or a celebrity, and a journalist insists there’s a public right to know, resist all the way. You should be allowed to conduct your affairs, personal or business, away from the public gaze.

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  1. Always makes me laugh when its because a journalist wants the gossip and is upset they dont get it they scream its the publics right to know.
    If you told them off the record it makes them much more interesting dinner guests.
    Why is John Keys shareholdings more relevant than a P habit of a sitting member. Is an illicit relationship with a (former)government member and the (former)chair of an SOE part of the publics right to know ?
    I say bring on the English system and lets make life a bit more lively, BE you could make a fortune being the Max Clifford of the South Pacific.

  2. “…public’s right to know” There is a kind of duality to this supposition. Two recent high-profile cases underscore the notion here. One, involved a prominent sports broadcaster where the skeletons rattled their way out of the closet; and the other, where an MP rushed at breakneck speed into the political abyss.

    In the first instance, the level of reporting assumed a life of its own. The media’s putative “in the public’s interest” story, was unrelenting. Almost predatory, revelling in a career-ending domestic incident. Which, really, concerned no one but the couple, themselves. There was just an unhealthy singularity as to how the media reacted (the Germans have an apt
    name for this), not too unlike a shark-feeding frenzy. It was a wholly unedifying spectacle, catering to the public’s lowest common denominator, for celeb news. There was little regard for the personal wellbeing of the
    people involved. Not only was their dirty laundry laid out for the public to gawk at, there was also much finger-pointing as to where the actual “stains” were. Responsible and credible journalism should never leech into the domain of the Tawdry and Vindictiveness — especially when it comes to media-types (and their quest to be in the limelight). It’s an industry riven with egos,
    ambition, conceit and petty jealousies. Hence, “they” needed to be mindful when reporting on “one” of their own, and acquit themselves in an impartial manner. But, here, I think, objectivity gave way to crassness and a – perverse – visceral glee. Having said that, you say: “those who court celebrity can expect little mercy from the media”. How true. Because you can’t elect to be seen cavorting about, showing off the upper part of your G-string, in one setting; then, in another, imploring for privacy, and/or rushing to don a nun’s habit, when things go awry. Either way, in this instance, the level of reporting was highly disproportionate to the actual incident, itself. More so, when embellishing the drip dripping of corrosive revelations with prurient minutiae.

    In the case of the fallen MP: he forgoes his right, totally, to privacy, when it comes to any surreptitious peccadilloes etc. An MP is an elected representative of the people: a rulemaker, the arbiter of what is “right and fair” when it comes to society’s norms and rules, exemplifying the moral tenor of the country. If he can’t be relied upon to make the proper judgements in his private life, then it doesn’t actually engender much confidence when he’s
    transacting parliamentary business, which can affect our own. He should see himself as being under public scrutiny at all times — that is, pretty much everything he does, is reportable. Night and day.

    • These are two interesting cases, Merv. I think you’ll agree, though, that each of these gentlemen contributed to his own demise: the first by his saccherine initial press conference (media minders sometimes have a lot to answer for!) and his constant attempts to shift blame – “she made me do it”; the second (and I’m assuming you’re referring to Winston Peters) by constantly baiting the media and refusing for years to give a straight answer to legitimate questions. The Journos’ Revenge!

      In the Veitch case, I agree there was an element of schadenfreude, but there were also serious criminal charges to answer. The same canibalistic frenzy happened with Michael Barrymore and this may be the inevitable fate of any celeb who steps over the line. There are newspapers to sell and ratings to build on, and celebrity scandal is media gold.

      Incidentally, I’ve updated my post to include people who seek public office.

  3. I can’t recall hearing many news bulletins as surreal as the ones we’ve had in the past day in which we have been told that John Key had been privately apprised of “the facts”, without any endeavour to explain away the various missing ‘W’s of journalism in the story

    As a broad – but thoroughly lawyered-up – wink to the crowd it really was quite something.
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  4. Can I just say that the picture atop this post is possibly the most creepy photo I’ve seen in many a long year?

  5. Really? Wow, that is creepy. I have rarely seen such voracity in a man’s eye.

  6. And creepier, still, is that we can’t see what his hands are doing.

  7. You’re against name suppression in court cases? Ever hear of the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”?

    • I don’t think I mentioned name suppression. That’s entirely up to the courts, and if it is ordered the media will always comply, albeit reluctantly. My point is that if you court celebrity the media will give you less protection than they give Joe Citizen, and if you are a public figure revealed as a hypocrite the spotlight will turn on you. Perhaps deservedly so.

      My post on non-news might give you a better idea of my views on name suppression.

  8. “The lawbreaker cannot expect to remain anonymous. Name suppression in criminal cases is anathema to the media and rightly so.”

    It’s right there.

    • You’re quite right. I did mention it. I should read my own stuff!

      However, while I understand the media’s opposition to name suppression in the majority of criminal cases, I don’t believe that same “right to know” has a place in the family court, or even in some civil cases. Most judges use their discretion wisely, knowing that usually suppression is interim at best outside the family court. Waiting for identification may be frustrating for the media and the public, but that waiting seldom causes harm.