Recordings of actor/director Mel Gibson breaking sound and sanity barriers in phone calls to his ex-girlfriend have leaked out online over the past few weeks. Gibson and Oksana Grigorieva are fighting over custody of their baby daughter and filing various judicial claims against each other.
She’s accusing him of physical abuse, while he’s claiming extortion. The facts will inevitably be resolved in court, with evidence presented under penalty of perjury. But the circus outside the courtroom is what people are likely to remember, regardless of the legal outcome.
Put these tapes in front of someone, and they’re going to listen out of curiosity. But there’s a greater principle at play: Should public dissemination of anything and everything personal be allowed? Or should tabloid magazines and blogs be sued into oblivion and risk civil and possibly even criminal charges for posting even verifiably true personal information about anyone, regardless of whether they’re public or private figures?
I say yes—and here’s why.
The Gibson rants are admittedly riveting. It’s interesting to discover what an actor is like in the raw, behind their carefully crafted and controlled Hollywood image. But we’re only seeing a fraction of the situation represented in the recordings. It’s a drastic oversimplification to argue that Gibson is a jerk to his ex, so therefore he can be dismissed as an all-around jerk. I personally find that I get along best with people whom others tend to find difficult. Similarly, my tolerance reserves get chewed through quickly by vapid, inauthentic types—otherwise known by many as “likeable”. Public consciousness doesn’t tend to have much of an impact on my opinion of any person with whom I’ll have any real and consequential dealings, so what exactly is the need to have it out there?
I’m not defending Mel Gibson, or his ex. I’m neutral on the whole matter because I really don’t know what’s going on. Apparently this kind of admission is rare nowadays, in a time when everyone is an expert—especially on the Internet. A quick glance at the comment section of any website posting the Gibson rants proves that there are a lot of people with far too much to say about things they know zip-all about.
Decades ago, a certain culture of respect for people’s privacy used to exist, which is why we never heard who the President was having sex with, or which Hollywood actors were gay. Now, any such boundaries are blurred: People you don’t even know on Facebook consider themselves your “friends” and proceed to sift through your photo albums and argue with you without even introducing themselves. If you wanted an introduction, you could just rifle through their profile.
Celebrities expose themselves on blogs and Twitter, sharing the details of their private lives, and even responding to those who tell them off: If you’re not fully transparent, then you’re just being a jerk. Advances in social media have led to a collapse of the private sphere into the professional one to the point where many now seem to find the two indistinguishable.
While I’m generally against government regulation, laws are needed when social constructs collapse. To argue otherwise is, in the extreme, to think that anarchy is a good thing. And if you believe that, then Haiti is the place for you—a real libertarian paradise with no government.
A model exists for dealing with this kind of social disintegration: France. Most Americans think that the French don’t report on people’s private lives because they simply don’t care or find it distasteful. Wrong—they just don’t need a legal headache.
It’s against the law in France to publish or disseminate information related to the private life of any individual—even if it’s true. Disseminate a photo or a recording of someone in a private place and you’re looking at a fine of up to 45,000 EUR and a year in prison. The French Civil Code allows anyone whose private life has been exposes publicly to sue, for tens of thousands of Euros, both the press and the person(s) who bring it to their attention.
The only way private information can ever be published in France is if a signed waiver is obtained, or if the person discloses the information themselves. Also, in some cases, because the French tabloids are limited to running puff pieces and press releases as a result of these legal limitations, they will often hedge their bets on really big scoops. They’ll calculate estimated sales for a story and weigh that against the costs of any legal proceedings for violation of privacy. If a matter pertains to the interest of the state, then it can be exposed without penalty—but any personal matters not relevant to the situation must be carefully parsed out beforehand.
It’s really not drastic to censor the publication of personal information: it’s civil and respectful and none of anyone’s business. It’s how America used to be. Have things really improved since we’ve thrown all common decency out the window in the interest of transparency?