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Right to privacy

In recent days, the news media — particularly the radio call-in programmes — have been hot with discussion of reports that Minister of the Environment, Dr. Denis Lowe had been hospitalised.

As has become the norm with such reports, it would appear that the country was instantly abuzz with “news” about the supposed state of the health of the minister and the possible implications for Government given the seat count of the two parties that make up the House of Assembly.

Notwithstanding this gossip component, there was a second debate taking place, again as usual, about whether such matters were legitimate fodder for the journalism mill — whether the illness of a minister was legitimate news material.

As occurred the last time the minister was hospitalised, it would appear that the natural inclination of those close to the minister was to shut off all lines of communication to the general public, in the process leaving a clear vacuum for those who in any event prefer Gossip Avenue.

We sincerely wish Minister Lowe a full and speedy recovery, and assure him that we only make reference to him because unfortunate as his situation may be, it presents an appropriate opportunity to deal with a matter that occurs often enough that it should be addressed.

It relates to questions of the right to privacy, the invasion of privacy and exactly to whom these matters should apply — or in the case of politicians, how they should be applied.

We note first the guidelines of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which state: “Public figures such as politicians, celebrities, prominent sports and business people and those in public office do not forfeit their right to privacy in their personal lives.

“However, it is accepted that public figures will be open to a greater level of scrutiny of any matter that may affect the conduct of their public activities and duties.”

We don’t see how any reasonable person, journalist or politician, could have a problem with that, but then there would have to be some agreement on “public interest”.

The ACMC therefore states further: “The broadcast of private information or material that invades privacy, without consent, will not breach the codes if there is a clear and identifiable public interest in the material being broadcast. The public interest is assessed at the time of the broadcast.

“Whether something is in the public interest will depend on all the circumstances, including whether a matter is capable of affecting the community at large so that citizens might be legitimately interested in or concerned about what is going on.

Public interest issues include public health and security; criminal activities; corruption; misleading the public; serious anti-social behaviour; politics; government and public administration; elections; and the conduct of corporations, businesses, trade unions and religious organisations.

“Not all matters that interest the public are in the public interest.

Any material that invades a person’s privacy in the public interest must directly or indirectly contribute to the public’s capacity to assess an issue of importance to the public, and its knowledge and understanding of the overall subject.

“It should be proportionate and relevant to those issues, and not disclose peripheral facts or be excessively prolonged, detailed or salacious.

“In the case of public figures, the broadcast of material that invades the person’s privacy may be in the public interest if it raises or answers questions about any of the following:

* The person’s appointment to or resignation from public office;

* The person’s fitness for office;

* The person’s capacity to carry out his or her duties;

* Conduct or behaviour that contradicts the person’s stated position on an issue.

However, it is unlikely to be in the public interest if it is merely distasteful, socially damaging or embarrassing.”

Given the above, a Barbadian journalist delving into reports of a minister’s hospitalisation is justified, as would be the publishing of any fair and accurate report arising from such activity. What would not be justified, is turning the matter into a public/political debate on the intricacies of the persons medical condition, laced with speculation that comes over as conclusions about the person’s capacity to continue in office.

In essence as a profession and as a country we ought to be mature in dealing with such matters. Even the choice of words used can unintentionally fuel the discussion, like the Prime Minister stating that “intelligence” he received indicates the minister should soon be fit to resume duties. Such terms, given their nuance in everyday usage, add more than a hint of intrigue where intrigue is the last thing you want to introduce.

From time to time public figures will fall ill, and naturally the state of their health will interest the country, and by extension the media. When that public figure is a politician, sitting MP and Cabinet minister, the interest will rise exponentially. However, we hold strongly to the view that news organisation must have mechanisms in place to guard against unnecessary exploitation of the event — even when such exploitation is not intended.

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