In Europe, a celebrity death and a political scandal spark debates about privacy

Over the weekend, a pair of big stories gripped neighboring European countries. On Friday, in France, Paris mayoral candidate Benjamin Griveaux—the former top spokesperson for the government of Emmanuel Macron—dropped out of the race, after a sexual video he sent to a woman who isn’t his wife circulated online. Then, on Saturday, in the UK, Caroline Flack—a TV personality who hosted the reality-dating show Love Island and won the British version of Dancing With the Stars, in 2014—was found dead at her London home. A lawyer for Flack’s family said she had killed herself. She was 40. Late last year, Flack ceased hosting Love Island after she was charged with assaulting her boyfriend; in the months since then, she’d faced a barrage of negative coverage from Britain’s notoriously voracious tabloids. 

We shouldn’t presume to know the intimate details of Griveaux’s marriage. And, as is always the case when covering suicide, we should be careful not to speculate about Flack’s state of mind. Still, in their respective countries, both stories sparked urgent debates about privacy, its limits, the media’s role in policing them, and whether social media has ended the concept altogether.

ICYMI: Governments of the world just ramped up spying on reporters

The sexual video of Griveaux was first posted by Pyotr Pavlensky, a Russian political performance artist, on a website called “Pornopolitique.” In past “works,” Pavlensky sewed his lips shut in solidarity with Pussy Riot, the dissident punk group; nailed his scrotum to Red Square, in Moscow, as “a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society”; and, after seeking asylum in France, set fire to its national bank. His partner, Alexandra de Taddeo, is believed to have been the initial recipient of the Griveaux video; today, both Pavlensky and de Taddeo were set to face a judge on charges that they violated France’s strict privacy laws, including one precluding the nonconsensual diffusion of sexual images. (According to Le Parisien, de Taddeo has said that she does not know how the video made it to the internet. Pavlensky also faces charges that he pulled a knife during a New Year’s party.)

France, it’s safe to say, is no stranger to political sex scandals. During a debate on France 24 about the Griveaux affair and “the right to a private life”, however, Pierre-Jérôme Henin, a PR professional who has worked as a journalist, noted that French politicians don’t tend to resign over consensual private conduct. After Griveaux did just that, figures from across the country’s political spectrum—from the far left to the far right, and including Anne Hidalgo, the moderate leftist who Griveaux was trying to displace as mayor of Paris—criticized the breach of his privacy. Several decried what they call the “Americanization” of French public life, and some journalists made a similar point. In a column, Philippe Val, the former director of the public broadcaster France Inter and the controversial satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, called the Griveaux video “an antidemocratic bomb.” The “opacity of private life,” Val wrote, is an essential part of the democratic condition—a necessary corollary for the transparency we demand in state affairs. As CNN’s Tara John, Martin Goillandeau, and Pierre Bairin put it, “The French do not care about the extramarital affairs of their politicians; but they do care about being told that they should.”

“Americanization,” in this context, could just as easily read “Britishization.” When it comes to the private lives of public figures, the Brits have always been more prurient than the French, with the country’s vibrant tabloid industry in the vanguard. Flack’s career has been a testament to that dynamic; as CNN’s Rob Picheta notes, it “was boosted, at least in part, by a media ecosystem that thrives on judgment and is quick to identify winners and losers.” Flack became very familiar with both sides of that equation—most recently, the darker one. As recently as Friday, The Sun published a mocking Valentine’s-themed story referencing her alleged assault of her boyfriend; on Saturday, as word of her death swelled, the Valentine’s story was removed. On her radio show Sunday, Laura Whitmore, who knew Flack and succeeded her as host of Love Island, called out Flack’s recent vilification by the press. “She lived every mistake publicly,” Whitmore said. “To the press, the newspapers—who create clickbait; who demonize and tear down success—we’ve had enough.” Online, a petition calling on the British government to end tabloid harassment of celebrities quickly accumulated hundreds of thousands of signatures—enough for it to be considered for debate in Parliament

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It’s unlikely any legislative action will be taken, though. And as The Guardian’s Jim Waterson writes, “For all the public’s anger at celebrity news outlets whom many are blaming for hounding a woman to her death, privately people are flocking to tabloid sites to read every possible detail about her.” The website of the Daily Mail, for example, has published tens of stories on Flack since her death, including video of her former fiancé “looking downcast,” and interior photos of the apartment where Flack killed herself, which, we were told, offers “character living space in a superb location.” Too often, it seems, we’re as happy for the beasts inside us to be fed as news organizations are to feed them.

One-size-fits-all approaches to privacy aren’t helpful; they neglect not only the nuances of individual cases, but legitimate legal and cultural differences in different parts of the world. Most American journalists probably wouldn’t hesitate to call Griveaux’s sex video and Flack’s alleged assault newsworthy—both stories, after all, involve powerful people in their respective public spheres. But prurience, however it’s motivated, can have a personal cost, and news organizations the world over should keep that front of mind, whatever they’re dealing with. 

In Flack’s case, lines clearly have been crossed. In the wake of her death, Tim Jonze, a culture editor at The Guardian, asked readers to remember some of the last, haunting words she ever posted on social media: “In a world where we can be anything, be kind.” Such advice isn’t often given to journalists; if anything, we’re told we need to be the opposite. But scrutiny and kindness can coexist. Flack’s death—in all its tragic complexity—makes it urgent that we think on how.

Below, more media news from the UK and France:

  • Taking license: I noted in yesterday’s newsletter that according to the Sunday Times, Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, is keen to abolish the “license fee” mechanism by which the public funds the BBC, and replace it with a Netflix-style subscription arrangement. Yesterday, it emerged that Johnson might not be so keen on such a move after all; according to The Times, it’s his top adviser, Dominic Cummings, who wants the license fee gone, with Johnson instead favoring “reform rather than revolution.”
  • “Weirdos and misfits”: Last month, Cummings appealed publicly for “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to apply to work in government. Over the weekend, one of his hires, Andrew Sabisky, attracted scrutiny for past remarks, including about “very real racial differences in intelligence.” (During a media briefing, a spokesperson was asked 32 times whether Johnson agrees with this view, but declined to answer yes or no.) Yesterday, Sabisky was ousted. On Twitter, he took aim at “media hysteria,” and said he’d been the victim of a “character assassination.”
  • All talk: TalkRadio, a British property owned by Rupert Murdoch, has been fined after George Galloway, a controversial former lawmaker who hosts a show on the station, breached impartiality rules. According to Waterson, of The Guardian, talkRadio had tried to avoid the fine “by arguing it had very few listeners, very few advertisers, and would face financial pressures if [sic] had to pay a substantial financial penalty.”
  • A controversy in the UK: The BBC cut ties with Craig Ramage, a local soccer pundit, after he said on air that “young Black lads” playing for the soccer club Derby County needed “bringing down a peg or two.” Ramage apologized. 
  • A controversy in France: Critics accused Sept à huit, a show on the French TV channel TF1, of using blackface to obscure the identity of an interviewee, rather than pixellating her face. The interviewee in question was a rape survivor and former sex worker; Harry Roselmack, the show’s presenter, said yesterday that the show was trying to protect her interests, Le Monde reports

Other notable stories:

  • Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and the Washington Post, has pledged $10 billion to the fight against climate change. Yesterday, after Bezos made the announcement on Instagram, journalists, including at the Post, pointed out that Amazon has a huge carbon footprint, and has threatened to fire employees who speak out about it. (Amazon says it will run purely on renewable energy by 2030.) In other climate-journalism news, Chris May writes, for HEATED, about a confusingly labeled partnership between CNN and BP
  • Last month, amid a State Department crackdown on NPR, President Trump questioned the broadcaster’s existence in a tweet. Since then, the New York Times’s Rachel Abrams reports, donations to many NPR affiliates have spiked. Southern California Public Radio has seen a 250-percent increase, while contributions to KMUW in Wichita, Kansas—where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used to be the Congressman—jumped 90 percent.
  • Recently, after Tribune offered buyouts to long-serving reporters at its titles, Joshua McKerrow—who, as a photojournalist at the Capital Gazette, which Tribune owns, had to cover the shooting in his own newsroom, in 2018—decided to take one. “There are no words to describe the last two years,” he writes for Vox. “You give and you give, and the traumas add up, and eventually, I wondered if I owed this business any more of myself.” 
  • Susan Fowler, a former software engineer at Uber who blew the whistle on the firm’s mistreatment of women, has a book out about her experience. “I could never have predicted the positive impact my story had in Silicon Valley and throughout the world, nor could I have predicted the backlash and terror that my loved ones and I faced because of it,” she writes for Time. “Being a whistleblower is not easy. It is not glamorous or fun.”
  • Ahana Datta, head of cybersecurity at the Financial Times, writes for CJR that states have ramped up their spying on reporters. “There’s a danger that journalists will develop a sense of complacency born of hopelessness: They’re listening to me anyway, so why bother,” Datta says. “It has never been more important that we not give in to that feeling.”
  • On Sunday, Aziz Memon, a journalist in Pakistan, was found in a ditch having been strangled to death, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports. Several months ago, Memon had warned, in a video, that officials in Sindh province, where he worked, had threatened him in response to his reporting.
  • Yesterday, outlets including Deutsche Welle and CNN reported on a fresh leak of documents out of Xinjiang, where China is cracking down on its Muslim population. Per DW, the leak shows that “every face, every family and every movement” is being tracked. “People have been arrested for growing beards and having ‘too many’ children.”
  • And Aaron Ellis—an assignment editor at WAVE TV in Louisville, Kentucky—saw Natalia Martinez, a reporter at the station, talking to a man in a parked car, grew suspicious, and asked a police contact to check the license plate. The man, it turned out, was a secret police source of Martinez’s. Ellis was fired for outing him. The Courier-Journal has more.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.