Rebel Wilson and Sydney Morning Herald: Paper got it wrong on privacy

Why UK tabloids would not have outed Rebel Wilson

Rebel Wilson: Why Sydney Morning Herald got it wrong on privacy

The Sydney Morning Herald feels about 40 years out of date in its approach to the news Rebel Wilson is in a same-sex relationship.

The title approached the Australian actress for comment on the story, only for Wilson to announce the news herself on Instagram.

It is at least to the credit of the SMH that it has now retracted a column about the “gazumping” and journalist Andrew Hornery has apologised for the framing of his initial email to Wilson which said: “I have enough detail to publish.”

This suggested the SMH would press ahead whatever, which is ethically and legally dubious to say the least. It is actions like this that give journalists everywhere a bad name.

This is unfair because recent cases suggest to me that UK tabloids (despite their low reputation among many) would not have behaved like the ‘broadsheet’ Sydney Morning Herald.

The IPSO Editors’ Code that most UK newspapers and magazines are signed up to states that everyone is entitled to respect for their private life unless there is an overriding public interest in publication.

The UK courts have also made clear that when it comes to sexual matters a strong public interest must be proven if Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the Human Rights Act is to trump Article 8 (privacy). Adultery, for instance, is no longer sufficient public interest to justify revealing a relationship.

In February 2020, TV presenter Phillip Schofield announced live on TV that he was gay after reportedly being approached by The Sun. He then gave his only newspaper interview about the matter to The Sun the following day.

The Sun clearly realised it had to work with Schofield if it was to publish the story, unlike the SMH’s clumsy approach to Wilson.

Schofield himself said: “This is my decision. This is absolutely my decision. It was something I knew that I had to do.”

Apart from Schofield’s right to privacy, this story would have been impossible to run without his co-operation. Outing a celebrity without their consent would have led to a huge and justified PR backlash for the paper.

The other similar high-profile UK case that springs to mind again involves The Sun.

Former Welsh rugby international Gareth Thomas announced his HIV status on Twitter on 14 September 2019 with a BBC documentary broadcast shortly afterwards exploring the story further.

I understand that The Sun approached Thomas some years earlier with questions about a potential story related to his HIV status. But the fact The Sun chose not to run anything indicates it realised this was a no-go area without either his co-operation or a cast iron public interest defence.

Gossip columns will, by their nature, probe into areas around relationships. And if they are going to avoid becoming stenographers for publicists, showbiz journalists will on occasion have to probe the boundaries around privacy and freedom of expression.

But on this occasion the SMH clearly got the balance wrong.

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Author: Dominic Ponsford

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette