Melanie Verwoerd

Condoms, wine and birthday cards: Are public figures entitled to privacy?

2019-07-09 15:44
EFF leader Julius Malema. (Getty Images)

EFF leader Julius Malema. (Getty Images)

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It is important to distinguish between what interests the public and that which is in the public interest. There is a difference, and media outlets often confuse the two in their desperation to keep circulation numbers up, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

Last Wednesday veteran journalist, Marianne Thamm, published a story under the title "Revolutionary trash sometimes requires trash journalism, literally" in Daily Maverick.

Following a tip-off, Marianne had gone to a guest house in Camps Bay, which the EFF had apparently booked out for six days during SONA. Shortly after the members of the EFF had vacated the guest house, 14 bags of trash were put outside on the pavement. Marianne loaded seven of these bags into her car and later, with some witnesses present, went through the trash.

In it she found, among other things, a large number of very expensive empty alcohol bottles, numerous sales receipts and tags from Zara and H&M, bank stubs, boarding passes from a senior EFF member, used and unused condoms, etc.

After the publication of the story, a social media storm erupted. Predictably, opinions were divided. To many this was just a further affirmation of the moral corruption of the EFF. However, others questioned Marianne's right to go through the trash.

For me the story (and debate) brought up painful memories. Nine years ago, my partner in Ireland died unexpectedly. Since he was a famous and beloved broadcaster, there was extreme (and I use the word deliberately) public interest in anything surrounding his death.

About three weeks after his death, one of the Irish tabloids published a seven-page spread which included photographs of handwritten birthday cards and letters I had written to Gerry. The paper claimed that someone had found the cards in a skip and handed them in to them. However, later the journalist involved admitted in an interview that he had emptied the contents of a rubbish bin outside of Gerry's house into his car and found these cards amongst them.

He described it as the biggest "scoop" of his journalistic career. For me, it was one of the most painful invasions of my privacy.

Of course the paper claimed it was in the public interest, and that both of us were public figures and as such had a very diminished – or possibly no – right to privacy.

So this raises the question: "Does a public figure have any right to privacy?"

Having discussed the EFF story with many people over the last few days, almost everyone agreed that the answer is no. They all felt that once someone becomes a public figure, and specifically an elected representative, s/he is fair game.

I don't agree. Politicians as well as other public figures still have the right to ask whether or not a story is in the public interest and demand protection of their privacy if it is not.

It is important to distinguish between what interests the public and that which is in the public interest. There is a difference, and media outlets often confuse the two in their desperation to keep circulation numbers up.

The basic definition of public interest is: "The welfare of the general public (in contrast to the selfish interest of a person, group, or firm) in which the whole society has a stake…" In other words, it is that which could and most likely would impact on the greater welfare of society.

I would argue that publishing my birthday cards was not in the public interest. Yes, there was enormous public interest in them, but the interest was purely voyeuristic. We had kept these things intensely private and they should have remained so.

Equally, the romantic and sexual relations of public figures (including politicians) might interest the public but as long as they involve consenting adults, are not abusive and not of a nature that might compromise national security, surely they should remain private? Information around family and in particular minor children is also rarely, if ever, in the public interest.

So what then in the case of the EFF trash story? Apart from the condoms, I believe that the information in the article was in fact in the public interest and that it was important for the greater welfare of our country that it be exposed.

The point is NOT that it proves EFF elected officials like to drink or shop or stay in expensive places. Their voters might not like it, but they have as much of a right as any other citizen to do so.

However, if their private activities reveal a significant gap between their political stances and their actions – in other words that their public pronouncements are hypocritical – then it is surely in the public interest that this hypocrisy be exposed.

As elected officials and members of a political party, they are pushing hard for certain policy changes in government. In many instances the mere fact that these issues have been raised formally by the party, has had an impact on the country. The best example of this is the EFF's wish to have foreign ownership banned in South Africa. Yet, according to Thamm's article they chose to pay R60 000 for six days in a guest house belonging to a foreign national.

Early this year, EFF supporters trashed H&M stores and Julius Malema triumphantly said afterwards: "Any business or person that supports racism must know that we are coming for them." Yet, it seems from the clothing tags and receipts in the trash that the leadership has no problem shopping at that same store.

Equally so, with the EFF election manifesto pushing for "The Illegalisation of Alcohol Advertisement Bill, which will end the celebration and promotion of alcohol consumption in South Africa", it seems a tad hypocritical to down your pre-SONA sorrows with Meerlust Rubicon and expensive French (!!) champagne.

So yes, in this case, we had the right to know. But it is a slippery slope and we must tread carefully. I would be the first one to criticise the media if they, for example, published the home addresses of EFF (or any other party's) members. Or if they published photos of their minor children without their parents' consent. We should be very thankful that we have limited exposure to tabloid media in this country. Long may it last.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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Read more on:    eff  |  media freedom  |  privacy


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