Fourth Estate or peeping tom?

Freedom of speech is not absolute, even in a mature democracy.

We have laws of defamation as recourse to individuals maliciously or carelessly maligned by untruths.

We have censorship legislation to adjudicate on the distribution of offensive sexual or violent content.

We take a dim view of "hate" speech, and religious blasphemy.

We employ laws of contempt to protect the judicial processes of our court system.

While we celebrate freedom of speech, the expression of ideas and the free flow of information, we legislate against extremes essentially because we also accept that with freedom comes responsibility - to truth, natural justice, social harmony - and we recognise there will always be those who attempt to defy such constraints.

Below statute, there are conventions.

There is, for instance, a sort of unwritten contract, an implicit understanding if you like, between journalists such as myself and our readers that allows us the privilege to gather information on people and publish it to their disadvantage, discomfort or downright embarrassment - provided we have good reason.

And that reason is generally held to be "the public interest".

Does the relevance of this piece of information or that, and its import to the wider society, outweigh a potentially negative impact on the reputation or standing of a fellow citizen?

If it clearly does, all well and good.

Often, however, there are significant areas of grey.

But when we, the Fourth Estate, enter the bedrooms and personal lives of private citizens, we must take special care, for we stand on eggshells.

Today, the twittering, emailing, blogging internet has the wherewithal to turn gossip into an instant global commodity, blurring the boundaries between news and tittle-tattle.

I was taken by an article in the London Observer at the weekend that looked at the case of English football captain Steven Gerrard and the untrue net-spread rumours of infidelity at the World Cup.

It asked the question: why have we all become so casually cruel? And answered it by suggesting the instant, impersonal and often anonymous nature of electronic gossip encourages it.

In this milieu, a sense of ethics and responsibility is more critical than ever.

While not wishing to defend the man in question, the recent case of a certain former All Black had unsettling echoes about it.

Twelve years ago, partying after a test match he bought drinks for two young women (with one of whom he had previously had consensual sex), who by their own admission had sought out the company of a rugby hero - intent on more than simply acquiring an autograph.

By common consent, the three of them ended up naked, the worse for alcohol, in a bed together.

And there we should probably draw a discreet veil over the affair.

But last week on prime-time national television a retelling of this old incident took us right back into that bedroom.

Who knows where the truth and natural justice of the matter lie, but with only one side of the story to go on, the perception of it, at least, went out the window.

And the public interest?

Must we all open our bedroom doors?

A truth and reconciliation commission on the sexual liaisons of the entire nation - to salve the untold slights and dissatisfactions of this most private of all minefields in human relations?

There are some parallels with the case of former United States presidential candidate Al Gore, who stands to have his reputation trashed by the allegations that years ago in an Oregon hotel, using a pseudonym, he hired a masseuse then behaved like "a crazed sex poodle".

It is alleged that during this private contract, his hands wandered, he fondled the masseuse's buttocks.

Despite such apparently unwanted attentions, the massage continued.

Two months later, the masseuse complained to police that he had tried to "kiss her with his tongue", and had asked her to "release his second chakra".

Almost four years after the case was closed, she tried to sell her story to the media - she is said to have sought $US1 million - and the file has been reopened.

With help from US tabloid the National Enquirer, which denies paying for the story, the matter is becoming a cause celebre, illustrating once again the fine line between robust investigation - in the public interest - and hypocrisy-laden demonisation.

With all the modern gossip armoury of Twitter, Facebook, email and YouTube, we guardians of the public interest have to be ever more careful how we walk.

For these days, it seems, we go where even angels might fear to tread.

Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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