A moral and ethical minefield: Freedom of the Press versus the individual’s right to privacy. Are they mutually exclusive?

In the current age and society, personal privacy is regarded as an important issue and the invasions of privacy from whichever sources are deemed unethical and can even be brought up to court. Yet ironically, the same society that we live in, according to Andrew Belsey, “thrives on publicity” (Belsey & Chadwick, 1992).

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To begin, there is no precise definition for the term ‘privacy’ because the term itself is broad. There are those who may view ‘privacy’ as “a condition of physical separation”, which is to live a solitude lifestyle and be protected against any intrusions into the private life (Glenn, 2003, p.3). While others see ‘privacy’ as a form of intimacy (Solove, Rotenburg & Schwartz, 2006). Likewise, the idea of liberalism is it guarantees “equal rights to individual freedom to every member of the society” (Rossler & Glasgow, 2005, p.21). This means to say, each individual is entitled to the right to decide how to live his/her own private life and the government has no control over this.

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On the other hand, news media offers information to the public on a regular basis, ranging from political news to crime stories and lifestyle tips. The public has the right know what happens behind the scenes related to governmental issues. The public has the right to know as much as the news media has the responsibility to provide such information to them. The First Amendment permits the press the right to provide information to the public without undue influence from the government. However, it also comes with conditions that inhibit the press from exploiting their rights to free speech.

Yet, the problem with free speech and the public’s right to be informed is that infringement upon an individual’s right to privacy is unavoidable. Hence, to answer the question, the freedom of the press and the person’s right to privacy is not really mutually exclusive. In fact, it is possible for the press to still provide information to the public without invading their privacy. There are however, conditions in which it is actually permissible to invade an individual’s right to privacy for the sake of public interest (Belsey & Chadwick, 1992).

According to them, the first condition is when one becomes a public figure and the loss of privacy is like a package that comes with fame and money; second condition is when the purpose of intrusion is to serve the public interest – for examples, uncovering crimes, defending public health as well as to prevent the public from being misled etc. Ultimately, the main objective of intruding privacy of the public figures for public interest is to ensure that they do their jobs well and make sure that these failings do not affect the performance of their public duties.

The claim that public officers lose their privacy when they come into positions of power within the society in context of sexual misconducts put forth a few arguments. Firstly, it is the claim that any type of intimate pleasure-seeking actions eliminates a person from the public office, plus the fact that a public officer commits adultery is already an offence itself. Secondly, there is the argument that the adulterer is a hypocrite because he is two-faced – pretending that he is a family man but he has an affair in private. Third, the claim that a man who is dishonest to his wife will also delude his country. And lastly, an adulterous public officer is less capable because he is distracted with his affairs (Archard & Kieran, 1998, p.89).

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Similarly, as mentioned in the seminar presentation by Vivian and her group, it is not possible for “the freedom of press and and an individual’s right to privacy to co-exist together without any serious consequences” – A great example provided by them is the South Korea’s Na-Young case with Singer Ali. After producing the song meant to comfort and inspire, the media and public ‘attacked’ her for her lack of consideration towards the family because it brought up unhappy memories about it. The press conference that Ali held later on revealed herself as a victim of rape, was also unsuccessful because instead of focusing on her sincerity to apologize, the media dug into her past (her privacy) and went on to cover her rape case instead.

There is however still not enough justification to show that intrusion of privacy is permissible unless one reviews the different sorts of reasons for invading the privacy. Furthermore, everyone is entitled to privacy rights – except for the fact that certain types of people have lesser rights due to their status; although, that should still not be the main reason to invade their privacy.


Archard, D., & Kieran, M. (1998). Privacy, the public interest and a purient public / David Archard Media ethics (pp. 82-96). London ; New York Routledge, 1998.

Belsey, A. & Chadwick, R. F. (1992). Ethical issues in journalism and the media. London ; New York: Routledge.

Glenn, R. A. (2003). The right to privacy : rights and liberties under the law. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.

Rössler, B., & Glasgow, R. D. V. (2005). The value of privacy. Cambridge: Polity.

Solove, D. J., Rotenberg, M., & Schwartz, P. M. (2006). Privacy, information, and technology. New York: Aspen Publishers.