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Craving for titillating bits erodes privacy, produces gossip-mongering society


If we have learned anything as a result of Princess Diana's death it may be that it's not what we want to know, but why we want to know it and what we intend to do with it, that is the measure of our morality.

The issue is not a person's right to privacy. Who doesn't pay lip service to the concept of the private life, at least when the privacy is one's own? It is the public's right to know, on the other hand, that may need to be more carefully scrutinized.

Exactly what does the public really have a right to know about a public figure? Under what circumstances? For what purposes? And come to think about it, who exactly is a public figure in the first place? Is it someone whose performance we have a right and responsibility to monitor for the good of institutions that carry our highest aspirations, or is it someone we have identified with in an obsessive way for no public gain? These are not easy questions to answer, perhaps, but in an age of relentless technology and disappearing privacy, they are questions of major philosophical import.

When a public figure, a sports star, for instance, who affects in the public arena the ancient Greek ideals of the athlete -- the healthy mind in the healthy body -- turns drug addict and contradicts the character of the very institution he represents, does the public have the right to know that? When a politician of impeccable public service finds herself embroiled in emotional turmoil or marital transition, does the public have a right to know that, too? When does information become gossip and when does gossip become deadly?

Most of all, if those two qualities are so clear in a democratic state -- personal privacy and public information -- why is the world so outraged by the nature of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales? And why so inflamed as well by the very nature of the paparazzi -- freelance and news service photographers who make a living off the sale of private pictures of people in whom the public shows an interest -- who pursued her to her death in order to provide intimate pictures of a public person? After all, "If she wanted privacy," a photographer argued in a television interview, "she could have stayed a kindergarten teacher."

If Princess Diana's death does anything at all to focus public attention, her last gift to us may well be to put the question of the public's right to know in new light. She was, to some degree, a genuinely public figure. She was a princess. At the same time, she was a princess without portfolio. Her "work," the British government and the royal family have been at pains to make clear, was not their work. She was not on "official" business anywhere. She was more a public curiosity than a public person.

What right, then, did we have to know anything about her beyond what she wanted us to know? Did we have the right to know that she ate her last meal at the Ritz if she did not want that information released? Did we have the right to know that she was staying that night at a villa owned by her companion? Did we have the right to have her chased down in order to tell us those things? For what public purpose would we have used that information?

Those questions have nothing whatsoever to do with privacy. They do, however, have everything to do with public values and the quality of public life. The truth is that there is no right to privacy for anyone in a culture accustomed to arbitrarily overstepping that right in order to satisfy appetites that have no public value. But there are public values to be considered here nevertheless.

In the first place, this kind of public feeding on private behaviors has the ironic consequence of eroding individual space in a highly individualistic society. We are destroying what we created. We are mocking what we hold most dear. We are eclipsing person with publicity.

In the second place, we are fast becoming a gossip-mongering society that delights in building people up so that we can systematically tear them down. It sells papers and makes for titillating talk but it decays the souls of the people who do it. It is the feeding of a people on offal. It destroys the destroyer. It advances the country not one wit and leaves the bloodhounds panting at the gate. It is at best what the Irish call begrudgery, the need to pull down anything that is bigger than we are for the sake of our own sense of righteousness.

Finally, it serves to obscure what is really significant, really important to the quality of the country. When those with civic responsibility or professional obligations purport to be our moral keepers, our standard-setters, our selves writ large and best -- and take the public salaries and social prestige that go with it -- but deliberately and callously ignore what they preach, we lose to moral bankruptcy the nobility of soul we have elsewhere insisted is the common coinage of the culture. Then, satiated by personal pictures of private couples on a beach in whom we have an interest but on whom we have no public claim we see no difference between that liaison and the contradictions embodied in public officials who preach one thing with absolute rigor but dishonestly and mockingly practice another. Then we ourselves have only the lowest of standards left to uphold.

We need as a people to look again at what we say we have a right to know so that what we do demand to know is for reasons larger than ourselves. If the person being scrutinized is a private person and the information to be gained has no public value, what title do we have to it? Since when did voyeurism become a civil right?

Before this is over, the photographers now on public trial for their part in the nature of Diana's last private car ride through Paris may find to their peril what it is like to be hounded by paparazzi. Maybe then they, too, will have something to offer to the discussion. In the meantime, prepare for background stories -- and lots of photos, I presume -- on the private lives of photographers you never wanted to know.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 1997