The Questions Of Privacy in News

The Questions Of Privacy in News

Gawker’s Hulk Hogan sex-tape article raises interesting questions on what constitutes newsworthiness.

By Vikram Johri

Published on :

The question of privacy in news, and indeed what passes for news, is roiling the United States news scene at the moment, as Gawker, one of the original tabloidy websites, faces Hulk Hogan in court on July 6 over a video posted on Gawker in 2012.

That video shows Terry Gene Bollea, which is the name Hulk Hogan goes by, having sex with a woman. The less-than-two-minute video has become the focal point of a debate that will not only define what constitutes news but can also have consequences for Gawker’s existence, as it were.

The lawsuit that Bollea filed against Gawker for invasion of his privacy runs to $100 million. Gawker, majority owned by Nick Denton and family, is valued at $200 million. Should the St Petersburg court rule in favour of Bollea in July, there is little doubt that Gawker will fold. Even if the judgement is not in his favour and he decides to appeal, Gawker will still have to submit the due amount in court.

Gawker, launched in 2003, has built a name for itself as the badass website where videos go to survive after a storm of pummelling in the mainstream media. From Tom Cruise’s Scientology antics to Sarah Palin’s email leaks, Gawker’s media philosophy can be summarised as: “Post first and fight later.”

While it has battled numerous lawsuits through its existence, electing to reach out-of-court settlements, the Bollea lawsuit was, to its peril, admitted for trial.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Bollea’s lawyer presented his case thus: “My client, Terry Bollea, was in a private place and he was secretly filmed. He has a right not to have that video posted, and it doesn’t matter if it was all 30 minutes or one minute and 41 seconds. No one had the right to show him naked.”

This would hold as the avid moralising that it is if Bollea had not gone on to make comments about the leaked video that do not seem to stem from embarrassment. Appearing on the Howard Stern Show after the leak, he was worried less about the fact of the leak than about how the video might give the viewer wrong ideas about his manhood. He told Stern: “I’m not trying to be a pompous ass but…the situation I was in, I didn’t want to be overly aggressive because I was with my friend’s girl.”

In fact, it is this precise statement that Gawker hopes to use in its fight against Bollea. That Bollea has been so blasé about the video leak and has, elsewhere too, made comments about his sex life, deprives him, in Gawker’s assessment, to claim the right to privacy.

Which, of course, is not an argument that immediately follows. Bollea can argue that he was making the most of a bad situation on Stern’s show and saw no reason to express guilt or otherwise for his actions now that the tape was in the public domain. And he would have a point.

Of course, the Gawker case has been bound up in legality but another case from back home that made headlines can give us pointers to what constitutes newsworthiness. In September last year, Times of India uploaded a video on its Twitter feed that was headlined: “OMG: Deepika Padukone’s cleavage show”. Padukone, and Twitter at large, reacted in protest. “YES! I am a Woman. I have breasts AND a cleavage! You got a problem!!??” Padukone tweeted.

Even for a publication that is celebrity-obsessed, TOI‘s video, with its choice of words reflecting an unsettling prurience, crossed a line. Critics of Padukone could complain that she belongs to an industry where such objectification is par for the course. Why, Padukone herself has filmed songs where the gaze of the camera has not exactly been innocent. But then that was part of a broader feature and the point of the song itself, it may be argued, was seduction. That is not nearly the case for a news story.

The debate over what passes for news is a slippery one. What is interesting is the studied legal defence that Gawker is mounting. Nick Denton said in an NYT profile: “We are being bombarded by marketing all of the time — marketing and self-promoters, people who wake up in the morning and get into character, whether they are Captain America or Hulk Hogan. If you want to be in the marketing haze, then be in the haze. But the Internet does give you the ability right now to go to Gawker and to find out what really happened.”

Denton has also sought to frame this case as a defence of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.

Stripped of its legalese, Denton’s argument effectively is that individuals who work in certain sectors such as film, fashion or sport, and are, due to the nature of their work, celebrities, cannot draw lines when it comes to coverage. “We celebrate your victories,” the argument goes, “so do not protest if we occasionally turn into voyeurs hungry for your private lives.” This is a dangerous assumption and is particularly bothersome coming from Gawker whose definition of news is grey at best.

On its part, TOI wrote a long column defending its stance, to which it appended images from Padukone’s other shoots in which her cleavage was visible. Yes Padukone has shot images that showcase her cleavage but questions of both agency and representation are key here. The images were shot with her consent and were presented in a way that was not distasteful. Neither of these attributes was true for the TOI video, nor do they hold good in the Hulk Hogan case. If we are going to judge what passes for news on the basis of the professional lives or private comments of those we seek to cover, we are in danger of presenting not news but salacious filth. Which might be the idea, after all, in this age of click-bait, but then we need to be careful about going to town with what we think are edifying ideals about journalistic integrity and free speech.