Privacy of a public figure?

For our second “Journalism: Ethics, Law and Power” tutorial exercise, our class was provided with an interesting scenario regarding a politician’s personal “affairs”. These so-called “affairs” included the use of a government car for personal purposes, being arrested for drunk driving and, yep, an actual affair.

Now myself, as stated in the scenario – being “a struggling journalist for the local metropolitan paper”, was in the difficult position of determining what news angle to pursue, having to carefully consider all the legal and ethical implications.

Our class was then asked to write a four par hard news story and critically answer some questions in order for us to begin thinking like a journalist.

After much deliberation, this is what I had come up with:

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Hard News Story:

City Watch police arrested Member for Ankh-Morpork, Senator Havelock Vetinari in his tax-payer-paid-for car after driving under the influence near a well-known brothel.

Mr Veternari was on his way home, when police caught him swerving all over the road in the government car.

“We’re sick of drink-drivers, people just don’t seem to learn that alcohol behind the wheel is totally unacceptable”, a police spokesperson said.

Mr Vetinari was released on bail this morning, with a hearing next week to determine his position.

Questions:

  1. What was your main consideration in selecting your angle?

The information given for this story allowed for various news angles to be taken. There were basically three newsworthy stories within the scenario –  a sex scandal, drunk driving and personal use of a government car. As much as I wanted to write about Senator Vetinari’s personal “affairs”, my better judgement decided against it. Sure the story might have sold more stories as sex “sells” and would advance my current journalistic position (which apparently wasn’t great as suggested in the document) legally and ethically it might not have been the safest option. Being the only observer and source to Vetinari’s run in to the brothel, gives him the opportunity to testify against me in court for defamation. As really, what evidence do I have of him actually being there? Why do the public REALLY need to know he was there? Sure brothels give  a bad impression to a man of high prominence, particularly one with a family and in government, but it wasn’t really necessary … even though we all love a bit of gossip!

I also considered my position in seeking out the story and whether it was some kind of invasion of privacy by “following” the Senator. Therefore, I decided to centre the story around Mr Vetinari’s arrest for drunk driving while driving a government car. That way, I was able to string together all the stories, without coming across too strongly. I gave a slight suggestion that Mr Vetinari may have been to a brothel by mentioning the police picked him up for drunk driving nearby. Now, although Police Constable Fred Colon did not confirm the identity of the man arrested, he gave the suggestion that it was indeed Mr Vetinari. Therefore, to protect the constable’s identity and not jeopardise our relationship, I did not use his name and instead quoted him as a ‘police spokesperson’.

I believe this story is in the public’s interest, as it reveals irresponsible actions taken by a person who is professionally meant to be very responsible, accountable and transparent.

  1. What was the main legal implication in covering this story?

As mentioned previously, the main legal implication and consideration was defamation. By framing the story around gossip (Mr Vetinari’s encounter with a brothel) would allow the opportunity for the powerful figure to sue me, regardless of whether I was being honest. I was only witness (besides the brothel itself), which would not prove my testimony and could lead the judge to question my integrity in following the Senator. Mr Vetinari could also definitely play up the sob story as well by introducing the idea of his wife being sick and having two kids and how this “ordeal” will affect his family and professional reputation.

  1. What was the main ethical consideration in covering this story?

Although I did ethically think about Mr Vetinari’s family position in the brothel discovery, I decided to disregard it for professional reasons. Despite it being damaging for his family – I realised it should not be of my concern, as it really was his fault and the family could have found out by other means anyway. However, when it came down to it – the family’s link to the legal implication of defamation meant I should stay away from the “nitty gritty” of the brothel observation. I also deemed it to be irrelevant to include any information about his family as well, like his wife being sick as it placed unnecessary emphasis on family relationships.

In not directly writing about Mr Vetinari’s brothel encounter, I also considered allowing him an opportunity to reply. A story based on speculation, would be unfair and unethical, as I did not approach the source himself and would be considered gossip.

I also considered my relationship with the Constable in my own writing. The story information states that Police Constable Fred Colon is a “good friend” of mine, therefore I wanted to make sure this relationship remained, as you never know when I may need to gain information from him again. In doing so, I didn’t include his name in the article and simply referred to him as “police spokesperson”, which also protects his identity as he didn’t officially confirm the drunk driver was Mr Vetinari.

Lastly, the concept of the anonymous source tip-off was another major consideration. What is the source’s motives and interests in providing me this information? Was it all for his/her benefit or their party’s? 

  1. To take this story further, who would you contact and why?
  • The Government/Vetinari’s party etc. to find out whether they are conducting an inquiry into Mr Vetinari’s personal use of the car.
  • Police Constable Fred Colon to firstly make sure we are still on good terms and what the Senator’s current position is in terms of the hearing. Will he be charged? Etc.
  • Approach The Streamstresses’ Guild and attempt to talk to one of the employees to gain more information on Mr Vetinari’s “business” within the brothel.
  • Aim to gain a quote from Havelock Vetinari himself, to allow him the opportunity of right of reply etc.
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