Can celebrities expect privacy?

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Hugh Grant
Image caption,
Actor Hugh Grant has been campaigning in support of a public inquiry

The phone hacking scandal, currently centred on the News of the World, has reignited the debate on privacy and press regulation.

But how much privacy can, and should, celebrities - who make their living in the public eye - expect?

For years, the tabloid press has made its reputation on "exclusives" involving celebrities' private lives.

Stars frequently take out injunctions against newspapers preventing them from revealing possible indiscretions.

The recent phone hacking scandal has drawn claims that up to 3,000 celebrities, politicians and sports stars had their communications monitored.

Some stars have been vocal on the issue, especially Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan, who both claim to have had their mobiles tampered with.

Actress Sienna Miller won £100,000 in damages from the News of the World in May, after the paper admitted hacking her phone.

Yet the relationship between celebrities and the media is such that, arguably, one cannot exist without the other.

'Delicate balance'

Jeremy King, editor of industry paper Media Week, says that although celebrities are in the public eye, it does not necessarily make them "fair game".

"It's a delicate balance between celebrities from the Y-list up to the D-list, who are quite happy to reveal their inner secrets, and the A- and B-list, who go about their business and guard their private lives.

Image caption,
Sienna Miller was awarded £100,000 after the News of the World obtained private information about her

"People are happily hacking to get exclusives from A-listers because they're slightly unusual.

"But if you court the media in the first place and don't like it when they say something nasty, then unfortunately once you push the toothpaste out of the tube it's hard to get it back in."

According to media commentator Mark Borkowski, celebrities need to realise that to a certain extent they are public property.

Despite this, he continues, it can still be possible for them to have a private life.

"If you want privacy, you can obtain it by keeping a delicate balance between the needs of promoting what you have to professionally - and how you conduct your life," he explains.

"You need to have a long-term commitment to the amount of fame you have generated.

"You can't switch it on and off, so you have to have a strategy of dealing with it."


The role of the PR machine is a key player in the issue.

On the one hand, a publicist may tip off the media as to their clients' whereabouts or promote their latest project.

On the other, a PR could be working hard to limit the damage after an unfavourable story.

Celebrity PR consultant Max Clifford says the biggest part of his business is protecting the image of his clients, not promotion.

"If I have a star on my books that has always desperately kept themselves private, then they deserve greater protection," he says.

"[But] if you use the media, you can't complain too much when the media uses you."

Clifford believes there can be times when it is justified to make private lives public knowledge, provided the information is legally obtained.

"There's loads of people that would be the victims of kiss-and-tells that I've stopped because it wouldn't have been justified."

But he adds: "If a politician is lecturing about family values while they're having affairs, then they deserve to be shown up."

"Rich people can afford a PR person or lawyer who can stop it. But if it does slip through and you get caught out playing away, you only have yourself to blame."

Borkowski dismisses the suggestion that if a celebrity has a PR company behind them they are probably trying to hide something.

"If people hire an accountant, are they trying to fiddle their tax?" he asks rhetorically.

"Good PR people are doing their job, which is to manage the media," he says.

Public demand

The public play a huge part in the privacy debate, thanks to the rise in gossip columns and magazines whose readership depends on an appetite for celebrity scandals.

"The incessant need of the public to know what every celebrity is doing is phenomenal," King says.

"Ironically, this same public are equally outraged when it comes to normal civilians having their private lives publicly played out."

Image caption,
Max Clifford won an apology and settlements from News of the World after it hacked his phone

The phone hacking scandal was relatively low on the news agenda when it appeared that celebrities were the only ones targeted.

When it became clear it also involved members of the public, however, public outrage escalated.

"Their attitude is, 'Max Clifford and Sienna Miller use the media and do very well from it, so I won't lose too much sleep over it,'" says Clifford.

So will the scandal change the relationship between celebrities and the media? "It has changed the nature of tabloid journalism forever," Borkowski declares.

Yet King doesn't agree. "Certain celebrities are so desperate for publicity, they'll take the lows as long as they get more highs - and more coverage.

"But higher profile stars will probably think twice about doing exclusive interviews and be more acutely aware of what they do."

Clifford hopes a new press regulator, if instigated, would help tackle the "excesses" of the media.

"You've got to have a free press in this country, and when they get it wrong they must be punished and shown up," he says.

"Hopefully we'll have a half-way house and avoid a privacy law, which to me is totally wrong in any democracy.

"The press must be free, but they must be responsible."