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Public airwaves no place to examine ‘private’ lives

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CALGARY — It’s good to be reminded from time-to-time that personal privacy still matters, particularly in context of our share-all, tell-all, respond-to-everything social media environment.

The idea that our friends, neighbours, coworkers, and even public figures are entitled to have a private life is one that needs be remembered and safeguarded, particularly by professional journalists.

An online information blog reported last week that producers with the CBC radio program The Current are being criticized for censoring the views of prospective interview guests.

In reality, the producers simply exercised good judgment in telling their potential interview guests that the proposed discussion wouldn’t include an airing of specific aspects of the private life of a prominent public official.

In the spirit of that decision Troy Media won’t disclose the name of the public figure in question, even though any one reading this column could easily go online and figure out who it is. The principle is important.

The Current’s producers were looking into the idea of doing a program segment on the subject of public figures being "outed," or having their sexual orientation made public by someone other than themselves, and without their consent.

"Outing" has been used for some years as a political tool by people and organizations promoting equal treatment of homosexuals. Forcing famous people "out" was and is, they believe, a way to encourage public debate and acceptance.

When The Current called Canadian writer Brad Fraser, known widely for his plays on gay issues, he reportedly said that he would take part in the discussion, but suggested that while doing so he would make reference to, or "out" in a sense, a high profile public figure.

The producers said they could not sanction that approach to the topic. It would be discussed generally only and would not be used to examine the private life of the person in question.

Now, Fraser may have his reasons for wanting to name the official, and he is of course entitled to his opinion. If he wants to publicly identify the person, and to raise issues he sees around high-profiled people choosing not to publicly discuss their sexuality, he can do so.

But professional journalists need a higher standard of public discourse. The media should only examine the private lives of significant public figures if there is some sense either that events in the person’s private life call into question their fitness to play an important social role, or when there is an important public policy debate underway where consideration of the behaviour of public officials could provide important context.

The Toronto media’s reporting on the life and comportment of that city’s controversial mayor, for example, is justified given that Rob Ford seems to have made many questionable, if not poor, judgments in his private life. If there is a pattern of bad behaviour or poor decisions in one’s private life, it is reasonable to examine whether that pattern will play out as he or she attends to their public duties.

The media’s interest in asking politicians if they smoke or have ever smoked marijuana is another example. While it may, on the surface, seem like a simply prurient question, reporters have determined that many public figures have at least tried marijuana in their time, which is illustrative of the how normal that is. The real issue around drug use is the failure of 40 years of public policy that has left us with a worse societal drug problem than we once had. The have you smoked question helps to illustrate that.

The Fraser circumstance, by contrast, doesn’t match either of those examples. There is no evidence that the public official’s ability to do his job is in anyway impaired by his assumed sexual orientation. Further, it would surprise no one to hear that a significant public figure is gay. Society certainly has some more distance to travel on equal treatment of gays where, unlike the drug debate, the tide has already turned toward a more enlightened and progressive direction.

But while Fraser is not wrong to advocate for gay rights and interests, and he and the CBC producers involved should all be applauded for their willingness to consider a challenging public issue, the producers were absolutely right in deciding that they would not use the public airwaves to examine the private life of a public official just because they could.


Troy Media Columnist Terry Field is an associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University, Calgary.

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