Thursday, 18 October 2012

Exploitation and Fair Trade in Media

On Tuesday evening this week, the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, presented the last of his programmes on the ‘stiff upper lip’ which British people are famous for.

He reflected, in the course of that programme, on the edition of his magazine which had caused the most outrage. After Princess Diana’s death (never has the British stiff upper lip been less in evidence among the general public), Private Eye published a front cover which pointed out the hypocrisy with which the public acted: outrage at the circumstance of the Princess’ death was expressed by those who had been willing to pay the inflated prices of newspapers and magazines containing prurient pictures of celebrities. Those inflated magazine or newspaper prices had, of course, funded the photographic frenzy that pursues celebrities around the world through long lenses.

Privacy became a hot issue again this summer, when two members of the royal family had their privacy invaded in only a few weeks – first Prince Harry found that one of the friends he had invited back to his hotel room in Las Vegas had taken a picture of him naked, and sold it to the papers. Only shortly afterwards, his sister-in-law, The Duchess of Cambridge, was photographed sunbathing topless next to a swimming pool on a substantial private estate in France, by a man who had to stand on his car roof to see over the estate wall, and use a long lens. These photographs have been published by magazines in several countries and are apparently viewable online.

Privacy has never been so prized, and so valuable –the prices of houses with long drives and high garden walls are testament to that. It’s strange that, in the UK at least, we all want to live in houses which have privacy, and we all want privacy for ourselves, and yet we seem to have more than our fair share of the newspapers and magazines which make their money out of ignoring the rights to privacy of other people. We want our own privacy, but we want to acquire the private lives of other people too.

So how do young people reconcile the behaviour of the press, and their own magazine, or newspaper buying habits, with the desire they reasonably have for their own privacy. And does the ubiquity of the camera – embedded into every phone – mean that privacy of grief, of suffering, or of elation is no longer possible at any newsworthy event. Pictures are taken, beamed round the world, and viewed by millions. How many subjects of such pictures will rue it later? How will our pupils deal with the possibility of giving away their own privacy, as well as participating in business which forcibly takes it away from others?

And reality television presents another problem: how do we respond - how should we respond - when others give away their privacy, often in the hope of riches they cannot obtain by other means?

In an assembly this week, I suggested that the definition of fair trade should perhaps include those media which treat people respectfully. Perhaps we should encourage pupils to be as careful about buying magazines, or indeed newspapers, which buy long range pictures of famous people on holiday, as we do with products grown in a way that exploits people. Similarly, we should get young people to reflect on the nature of the relative poverty revealed by the determination of so many to make themselves rich via reality TV.

There isn't  after all, any difference in wrongness of exploitation – whether it’s a prince or princess, or at the other end of the range of privilege. In fact, it’s just possible that the worst exploitation of all is the one we are blind to. Whether that applies more to materially wealthy celebrities in magazines or 'wannabe's involved in musical talent shows is open to debate.

One thing is sure: if we don't teach young people what today's exploitation looks like - they won't know how to avoid it - as victims, consumers, or managers.

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