A Reckoning For The Paparazzi And Tabloid Media

Allan Dunlavy 10 Mar 2021

The New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, ostensibly tells the story of the singer’s treatment by the paparazzi and tabloid media leading up to 2007 and her apparent breakdown but it is about much more than Britney Spears.

The documentary sharply demonstrates the very serious damage that the paparazzi and tabloid media can cause when they constantly invade people’s privacy and refuse to accept reasonable boundaries. Just because someone may be well-known or high-profile, they are still just people. They have all the normal concerns, fears and stresses that we all have. They also have the additional stresses that come with being high-profile, including being followed everywhere by a baying crowd. There are genuine and serious mental health consequences to being forced to live your life under this kind of constant pressure and invasive, harassing behavior which are vividly shown in the documentary.

The scenes where Britney Spears is harassed by the paparazzi when simply going shopping, sitting in her car or sitting in a restaurant are truly shocking. Just watching hordes of male photographers surrounding and chasing a young female star – frequently with her young children – is distressing; living it is so much worse. Unfortunately, the reality is that these scenes are just a small snippet of her everyday life where she is followed, chased and harassed constantly – even when she is with her young children – and it cannot but make you deplore what she was put through.

This shocking paparazzi behavior is also highlighted in the recently released HBO documentary about Tiger Woods. In the documentary paparazzi are shown hounding one of the women involved in that story and are not only physically harassing her and intimidating her but they are also verbally abusing her and saying horrific things to her.

This conduct is abhorrent and is a flagrant invasion of privacy. I do not believe that the public want well-known and high-profile people to be treated in this manner. This type of behavior is simply not acceptable, and we cannot continue to allow it to happen.

Bringing an end to this type of behavior would, of course, ideally begin with those engaging in it, profiting from it and directly encouraging it. That perhaps isn’t likely though. In the documentary we see a paparazzi state after one scene involving him that Britany Spears had a “bad night” and then notes that he made a lot of money as a result. He completely fails to acknowledge that he was, at least in part, the cause of her having a bad night rather than just a disinterested observer.

Following the airing of the documentary, one magazine issued an apology on Instagram that read in part: “We are all to blame for what happened to Britney Spears”. While I suppose that may be true in a macro sense, the reality is that the paparazzi and tabloid media are directly to blame and need to start taking some responsibility for the damage that their actions causes.

Any suggestion that the type of behavior exposed in the documentary is a thing of the past fails to acknowledge reality and we need look no further than the settlement and public statement between Splash UK and the Duchess of Sussex and her young son and their ongoing claim against Splash US in respect of the invasion of their privacy by a paparazzi photographer taking covert photos of her and her young son from a concealed position when taking a private walk.

Unfortunately, this type of conduct continues unabated and the harsh spotlight that the Framing Britney Spears documentary places on this conduct calls for a reexamination of what we are willing to accept and what the law should permit. It is essential that there is a reevaluation of privacy protections and an increase in the respect for everyone’s entitlement to a private life.

It is long past time that privacy and harassment laws are enhanced and deployed to stop this invasive conduct that causes distress and damage and destroys privacy. Everyone is entitled to privacy to go shopping, go to a restaurant or walk down the street with their children without being harassed.

The idea that high-profile and well-known people give up their privacy if they participate in media activities or engage with the media and photographers is hopelessly outdated. This argument was eloquently dismissed by the Judge in the Duchess of Sussex’s recent victory over Associated Newspapers when he stated: “At one time it was thought that disclosures in a given “zone” of a person’s private life could defeat or at least greatly reduce the weight of any claim for privacy in respect of other information in the same “zone”. That theory has been discredited. In the modern law, it is recognised that the respect for individual autonomy that lies at the heart of Article 8 means that the starting point is a person has the right to exercise close control over particular information about her private life: to decide whether to disclose anything about a given aspect of that life and, if so, what to disclose, when, to whom.” Why can’t someone decide to share 90% of their private life and keep the other 10% private? It is their private life and they should be entitled to disclose or keep private whatever and however much as they want.

This documentary highlights just how outdated and outrageous this type of conduct is, and it needs to be consigned to the trash heap of history. The law in the UK, US and elsewhere needs to start taking privacy rights seriously for everyone – whether high-profile or not – to avoid a generational mental health crisis.

At Schillings, we fight falsehoods & protect privacy and have been fighting against these types of privacy invasions for nearly 40 years. We believe that no one should have false information published about them or suffer ridicule by misuse of their private information.