Journalism has a key role to play in the fostering and maintaining of democracy, exposing wrongdoing and providing a platform for diverse views, but journalism has also been abused to damage people’s personal lives and the advent of the internet has heightened the effects of privacy breaches and the damage they can do. As such, there is a need for changes to journalistic practices to ensure that an individual’s privacy is protected.
There are many examples of how an individual’s privacy can be breached for journalistic gain. The exposure of phone hacking as a widespread practice among newspapers in the U.K., and tabloid newspapers in particular, highlighted that particular practice and its effect in damaging people’s private life, with information gleaned from phone hacking used to write and publish stories that were of little if no genuine public interest but were designed instead to titillate readers. Another widespread practice has been the bribing of officials with access to private information for the purposes of getting that material for publication. Close links between journalists and some police officers, for the purposes of procuring information related to individual’s private lives, has also emerged an issue of great concern for privacy campaigners. More recently, the hacking of cloud services and the subsequent leaking online of images of various celebrities highlighted the dangers of online platforms in releasing private information to a public audience.
In a broader sense, the celebrity photos hack highlighted the role of internet search engines and sites in the dissemination of private material. In particular, a debate has arisen as to whether search engines and sites can be held responsible in so far as to whether they knowingly accommodate the leaking of the information or not. The internet is a global platform, so leaked information can be spread around the world in minutes. A breach of privacy can be distressing enough without the realisation that the information and/or images have been seen by millions of people.
The campaign for changes to privacy legislation is being led by individuals who themselves have been victims of breaches of their private life. Max Mosley – privacy campaigner – is one such example. Mosley, the former president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the governing body for Formula 1 and other motor sports, has campaigned on a number of privacy issues, arguing, for instance, that Google is a publisher and not merely a search engine and has a responsibility as such not to breach an individual’s privacy by allowing what is private information to appear in its search returns.
The internet has had a transformative effect on people’s lives and has been a power for good in many respects, but as with all communication platforms it does need to be policed to ensure it is not abused and that people’s privacy is respected. It has been suggested that the emergence of social media, in particular, has created a digital environment in which people’s expectations of privacy are reduced. It is imperative, therefore, that the proper laws are in place to protect individuals from incursions into their private lives.