Journalists like to talk of the ‘public’s right to know’, but in most circumstances no such ‘right to know’ exists. In fact you are the one with a right – to conduct your personal and business affairs in privacy. You forfeit that right if you break the law, if your behaviour invites public scandal or derision or if you have chosen celebrity. The lawbreaker cannot expect to remain anonymous. Name suppression in criminal cases is anathema to the media and rightly so. But you don’t have to break the law to forfeit your right to privacy. People who achieve public prominence, whether they seek it or not, are subject to greater media scrutiny than the average person. If, for example, you are the chief executive of a large company, or the executive director of a major organisation, or a prominent member of the clergy or the spokesperson for an influential lobby group, your words and deeds are likely to be of considerable interest to the media. This is particularly true if your words are at odds with your deeds.
When Joe Bloggs has an affair and abandons his wife and children to shack up with a younger model, he is unlikely to be rung by the media for comment. When the CEO of a large company has an affair and abandons her husband and children to shack up with her personal trainer, the average journalist may be titillated and keen to publish, but will hopefully be persuaded by his editor that it’s irrelevant to the CEO’s ability to run the company and nobody’s business but hers. But when the Bishop of Waikikamukau or the head of Chastity Incorporated has an affair and leaves his wife and children for a younger model, the media are going to have a field day, and rightly so. The hypocrisy of those in public life is a valid subject of media scrutiny. Candidates for public office can expect a greater degree of scrutiny than those who vote from them.
However, once they are elected the New Zealand media are respectful of the privacy of MPs and local body politicians . They invariably know who’s playing away from home – they just don’t print it. But the media will have no hesitation in exposing dishonesty, hypocrisy or schonky dealings, regardless of the importance of the office-holder. Finally, those who court celebrity can expect little mercy from the media. The argument is relatively simple and has a certain logic to it: you cannot be selectively famous – you cannot enjoy the benefits of celebrity (money, adulation, privilege) and complain about your loss of privacy at the same time. That is having your cake and eating it too. So if you’re not a law-breaker, a hypocrite, a dodgy politician or a celebrity, and a journalist insists there’s a public right to know, resist all the way. You should be allowed to conduct your affairs, personal or business, away from the public gaze.