Newcastle PR

Press freedom in the digital age: the good, the bad and the ugly

Written by Felicity

Press freedom has long been discussed within the realms of PR, the media and communications more generally. So what’s it all about?

To simplify the issue, it comes down to the right of the press to publish information they believe is in the public interest versus an individual or group’s right to privacy.

The digital era is raising many unique challenges within the press freedom versus privacy debate leaving some key questions such as who are the contemporary gatekeepers of the media? What are the boundaries of privacy? Is digital media shaping contemporary media debates regarding celebrities and privacy?

In the past there were traditional media gatekeepers to keep the media in check, but with digital developments and the ease of social sharing, who is policing the social realms? Automatic play-back on videos on Twitter raised this question last year after the shooting of two reporters live on air in America. Many users were not aware of the feature which had (at the time) been added during an update. This took away the user’s choice as to whether or not they wanted to watch (in this case) a rather tragic event unfold.

Every year there are new cases that highlight the complexities of such issues, particularly when high-profile individuals are involved. In recent weeks there have been several notable cases that have thwarted the issue back in to the spotlight.

The good: Panama papers

The Guardian recently published an article hailing press freedom as a necessary counter to those in power who would prefer controversial and potentially career-damaging stories to stay secret. They discuss the topic from the perspective that the press have a responsibility to hold people to account, particularly if they are doing unscrupulous things.

This example is considered ‘good’ because, at its very core, it is an example of the press speaking out against an issue that is (arguably) in the public interest and would otherwise not have been openly discussed.

This issue has gained considerable global media attention which is perhaps a reflection of the scale of the issue and the state of UK press freedom. Consider this, the Snowden leaks were published in America and the Panama papers were released by a German newspaper because the press is deemed to be more liberal elsewhere. So what does this say about the UK press system?

The article examines the digital age, which has given the media far more reach and potential than at any other time in its history. But it also notes how other things have changed, including the rise of social media as a platform for unlimited volumes of content. Journalism, at its worse, can be  intrusive. But at its best, is a powerful tool.

The Bad: Hulk Hogan

During the Hulk Hogan Vs Gawker media trial earlier this year, a landmark decision was made which sent a clear message to the media.

Gawker described the decision to award Hogan (aka Terry Bollea) over $100 million in damages as “extraordinary”. But what actually happened?

Hogan took the now infamous Gawker media to court after they published a sex tape of him. The tape was controversial for several reasons: it featured a friend’s wife; there was an inappropriate conversation between them; and, Hogan himself did not know the rendez-vous was being recorded.

It was published online alongside an essay by the then editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio, about celebrity sex.

The rise of social media has bought with it many new possibilities and opportunities, but: with great power comes great responsibility! And social media has tested this to the limits. This court case in particular  raised questions around newsworthiness and celebrities’ right to privacy. Two discussions that are not necessarily new to the media realm, but that may be increasingly important.

In the end, the jurors at the trial decided this was a breach of Hogan’s privacy. The overarching message sent to Gawker was clear: privacy is more important than selling controversial news stories at the expense of an individual’s privacy outside of the media spotlight.

The Ugly: The super injunction

Celebrity super injunctions have become infamous in recent years as the rich and famous go to extreme lengths to keep their personal lives out of the press, fearing an uncomfortable backlash and potential reputation damage among other things.

The problem is, super injunctions have become so big they’ve become a parody of themselves. By the time the individual has spent hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of pounds to keep the story out of the press through the legal system, the media and typically a large proportion of the UK population will have worked out who the individual is – which raises the question: what use are they anyway?

In the past, stories has gone to print in the end, leaving the individual involved with a costly legal bill and even more unwanted media attention than what the story may have generated in the first place.

In conclusion. Perhaps there needs to be a clear distinction between what is considered to be newsworthy in the digital media age, regardless of celebrity status. Ultimately, the Panama papers have revealed deep financial secrets with implications for the rich and famous around the world, however, the release of a secret sex-tape has not affected society, yet has had far reaching implications for the media world. The result of the celebrity super injunction in this instance has yet to be seen, but one thing is for certain, press freedom in the digital age requires a level of responsibility greater than at any other time. It can be a powerful tool enabling those without a voice to speak out, but if misused there can be far reaching consequences.

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