by Grania Spingies
In the last couple of weeks there has been a heated debate about the Gawker-Theil-Hulk Hogan fracas. To summarise the goings on as briefly as possible, Terry Bolea (the real name of Hulk Hogan) sued Gawker Media for publishing anonymously-sourced sex tapes. He won his invasion of privacy case and has won millions of dollars including punitive damages against the online media network. Then it turned out that his case had been bankrolled by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, whose allegedly-humanitarian interest in the case seemed to have been fuelled by similar rough treatment by Gawker some years ago when one of their writers decided to “out” him. Gawker, of course, will appeal the judgement.
“It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence, I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”
Founder of Gawker Nick Denton has written a plaintive open letter to Thiel:
“We, and those you have sent into battle against us, have been stripped naked, our texts, online chats and finances revealed through the press and the courts; in the next phase, you too will be subject to a dose of transparency. However philanthropic your intention, and careful the planning, the details of your involvement will be gruesome.”
It’s a little whiny coming from someone who has no trouble subjecting anyone else to the ‘stripped naked’ treatment, and not a little threatening either.
Everyone and their dog (apologies, cats) has an opinion from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to journalists of every persuasion, see The Washington Post here and The New Yorker here. The conversation seems to be largely framed as a either a potential attack on press freedom or a potential attack on free speech.
Both of those things are precious in a free society, and so perhaps it is a good thing that a fierce debate has broken out about this.
On the other hand I personally am not sure that publishing the private sex tapes of anyone without their consent, even if they are famous, is in the public interest or can reasonably be claimed to be news. Consenting adults having sex is no more news than consenting adults brushing their teeth. Sure, people will look at it. But then, people will look at road-kill. I’m not sure I am totally onboard with an unregulated media with free reign to publish anything they think will generate revenue and page clicks regardless of the personal cost to the reputation of the private individuals they choose to platform for the delectation of others.
As it happens, almost an exact same debate happened in the UK a few years following the News International phone hacking scandal. It prompted a judicial public inquiry Leveson Inquiry which is still ongoing and none of its findings have as of yet been enacted into law. (Read its findings here).
As in the current US case, subsequent to the Leveson Report people found themselves on two different sides of the debate, torn between the crucial need to protect the freedom of the press (see Nick Cohen here) and regulate behaviour of some journalists (see Dr Evan Harris here).
The Leveson Report summarises the crux of the debacle like this:
It is not necessary or appropriate for the press always to be pursuing serious stories for it to be working in the public interest. Some of its most important functions are to inform, educate and entertain and, when doing so, to be irreverent, unruly and opinionated. It adds a diversity of perspective. It explains complex concepts that matter in today’s world in language that can be understood by everyone. In no particular order, it covers sports, entertainment, fashion, culture, personal finance, property, TV and radio listings and many other topics. It provides help lines and advice; it supports its readers in a wide variety of ways. It provides
diversion in the form of crosswords, games, and cartoons. In short, it is a very important part of our national culture.
But that does not mean that it is beyond challenge. Neither does it mean that the price of press freedom should be paid by those who suffer, unfairly and egregiously, at the hands of the press and have no sufficient mechanism for obtaining redress. There is no organised profession, trade or industry in which the serious failings of the few are overlooked because of the good done by the many.
It is a subject that isn’t going to be easily resolved. However, I am not sure that the Gawker case really has anything at all to do with the freedom of the press, even though it has bumped the issue into the public spotlight.The fact that Thiel is a billionaire doesn’t automatically make his interest in the Terry Bolea case sinister.
What is your opinion?