Thursday, January 26, 2012

France vs. United States: Privacy Laws and Celebrity Scandal

By Ellen Brummer

Katy Perry is Married to a Crazy Man! 
Gingrich Asks Wife for Open Marriage! 
Will and Kate Ready for a Baby! 

While these headlines seem like average celebrity headlines to us Americans, our French counterparts would be hard-pressed to find similar news stories lining their newsstands. On a recent trip to Paris, I learned that celebrity news coverage is handled very differently in France as compared to the United States. In America, generally speaking, we feel that celebrities’ lives are for us to write about, read about, gossip about, and then blog about. Their placement in our social hierarchy gives us permission to pry into their lives, or so most people believe. The intimate details of their lives become headlines on Us Weekly and People Magazine. The French, however, approach celebrity coverage very differently.
For the purpose of this piece, “celebrity” can be defined as any public figure whom is well-known by the general population because of their involvement in some prominent sector of society, whether that be politics, entertainment or sports. 

According to Professor Peter Gumbel at Sciences Po University in Paris, France, the value of privacy is held extremely high in the eyes of the French. Every person, celebrity or not, has a basic right to privacy that prevents the media and paparazzi from attacking actors, singers, politicians and athletes the way that some journalists do in America. 

Peter Gumbel
Peter Gumbel is now the Director of Communications at the aforementioned university, working as a professor within the journalism school. Before landing in Paris, he served as a foreign correspondent for a variety of American publications. He also worked for Time and Fortune magazines. His background makes him an obviously trustworthy source for studying celebrity coverage and how this journalism niche differs between the two countries.

One of the celebrity scandals that Gumbel cited during his lecture was the case of Max Mosley, former President of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), and a sex scandal that involved a Nazi-themed orgy with several female prostitutes. In short summary, Mosley’s sex acts were videotaped by one of the participating prostitutes and provided to a journalist from News of the World, after which the video clip and painfully-detailed story appeared on the Internet and in the publications of News of the World. Mosley responded by bringing a lawsuit against the news organization, claiming that the actions were private in nature and that there had been an “pre-existing” understanding of confidentiality among Mosley and each of the participating individuals. Eventually, Mosley won the court case against News of the World and was awarded (the equivalent of) $92,000.

Moseley with the issue of News of the World in question
This scandal provides an interesting vantage point into news coverage of public figures in France. After learning that Mosley did, in fact, win his court case against News of the World, I could not help but wonder whether such a case would hold up in the court of law in the United States. Here, much of our news cycle focuses on the actions of public figures, including governors, models, football players, actors, basketball coaches, senators and so on. Granted, French news probably relies on similar public figures for their news cycle as well. However, an important distinction exists. In the United States, our interest of public figures does not end with their area of expertise. For example, we do not just want to know about a baseball player’s batting statistics. We want to know about his latest relationship or what ritzy restaurant where he was spotted eating last weekend. Our appetite is not satiated until we have a grasp on the intimate details of the lives of American public figures. That means when a politician is at the center a shocking sex scandal, we feel that we have some inherent “right” to know about it. Therein lies the difference, I believe, between French and American news coverage of celebrities and other public figures. 

Gumbel stated throughout his lecture that the French truly hold their privacy in high regard. In one instance, he cited that the details of a politician’s adultery scandal was not released until after election day because such coverage beforehand would have been a breach of privacy and would have absolutely devastated this politician’s chances at being elected into office. In the United States, citizens would have largely felt that knowing about a politician’s act of adultery is a reflection upon their character and ability to hold power, and therefore, such information should be publicized.

After understanding the differentiation between French and American coverage, a question arose in my mind. Who’s right? If the French have a seemingly “conservative” view on covering public figures, and Americans believe they “deserve” to know the details of public figures’ lives, then which view is correct? One’s answer to this question perhaps depends on whether they identify more with the French media culture or American media culture. While attempting to remain as unbiased as possible, I pondered this question. Do we need to know about politicians’ controversial sex scandals? What about the gritty details of an actor’s divorce? Or every conceivable detail about an actress’ pregnancy? I believe the correct answer is not a solid “yes” or “no,” but falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
When that breaking news starts circulating, we need to ask ourselves: Does this piece of news help citizens more than it could potentially harm the subject of the story? In the example of Max Mosley, the question would ask whether knowing about Mosley’s sexual deviance helps citizens make informed voting decisions, or does it simply defame Mosley’s name? That question is open for debate, but I believe that it is the core of the conversation that we should be having. It is essential that journalists maintain their sense of duty to the truth and to the public, but unnecessary harm should always be avoided. Having the ability to report on something does not necessarily mean that we should. And just because something is personal does not necessarily mean that it should be kept from the general public. Careful consideration and thoughtfulness is necessary on behalf of journalists when covering the details of celebrities’ lives that go beyond their latest movie, recent political move or last night’s ball game. 

Click here to contact Ellen Brummer.

No comments:

Post a Comment