Public figures are routinely berated in the pages of tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines for lapses in moral judgement. Academic Robin Barnes fights their corner, arguing that it is today’s celebrities who are caught in a morality-free zone constructed by the media, one which allows them to be routinely subject to stalking, harassment, invasion of privacy and defamation. In her words, the lives of celebrities are served up to us at a “tabloid-style buffet”. No longer are incidents involving public figures legitimately reported in the public interest. Instead this practice has been morphed by the media into a general reclassification of celebrity morals and lifestyles as matters of public concern.
In Outrageous Invasions: Celebrities’ Private Lives, Media and the Law, Barnes examines a broad range of topics all falling under the privacy umbrella through cases emerging from the United States Supreme Court and the High Courts of Europe. In Chapter 1 it is clear she favours the latter, praising the cause celebre that was Caroline Von Hannover’s victory at the ECHR; holding the judgement up as an antidote to widespread violations of privacy hindering full and free democratic debate. The sparse media coverage of the Von Hannover case in the American media, Barnes explains, exposes a “mindset of infringement” that consists of a blatant disregard for basic elements of personal privacy and individual autonomy. She is certainly a staunch defender of celebrities’ right to privacy – public figures are not public property – and asks that we not fetish the freedom of the press.
Barnes blames the evolution of the entertainment press and the expansion of socio-legal concepts like ‘public’s right to know’ for the invasions that celebrities suffer at the hands of the press, and contrasts the “comprehensive” approach to media invasion of the European courts against the “normative” view of the US courts. The chapters on “Public Media” and the “Fundamental Nature of Privacy” provide a historical backdrop against which the rest of the book is explained. Barnes puts forwards some interesting cases studies; the press furore on the birth of Suri Cruise, the “venom and hyperbole” that surrounded revelations of Tiger Woods’ infidelity, the impact of actresses Jane Fonda and Susan Sarandon on shaping civic norms.
Outrageous Invasions is certainly one of the most comprehensive books on celebrity and the media, and covers such a vast array of problems arising from invasions; pointing out just how hard it is to define and protect personal privacy. Barnes is guilty of over-sympathising with celebrities and takes a polemic stand against the media, but qualifies this with a thorough analysis of cultural trends rooted firmly in accessible case studies and an understanding of commercial collusions between the press and celebrity publicists. She claims that European journalists often envy the one-sided interpretation of the right to freedom of expression in the United States, as this allows the media to publish under the guise of public interest. This provides an interesting commentary on the current state of privacy law in the UK, as it has been suggested that our tabloids are doing this already.
Natalie Peck is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism, City University London. She is @nataliepeck on Twitter.