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Paparazzi vs public figures: Who is ethically wrong?

Wen Zhang and Ma Yili Photo:

Recently, Chinese actor Wen Zhang’s infidelity to his actress wife Ma Yili has sparked fierce debate among the public. Editors of entertainment magazines are trying to tell the public not to be “the other woman”, but some people are accusing the paparazzi of the unethical conduct of trespassing upon the privacy of public figures.

Paparazzi are a special group of information suppliers. They make a living by selling information about the private lives of public figures. Consumers’ demand for such information is huge, according to a report released by the China Academy of Social Sciences, and the gap between the demand and the accessibility of public figures is bridged by the paparazzi. However, after their curiosity is satisfied, the public is very much likely to rebuke paparazzi for their “immoral” or “illegal” act of trespassing.

Entertainment reports are closely linked to click rates, sales and interests of various groups. In the US, it is common practice that paparazzi sell their photos to the buyer who pays the most, ranging from hundreds of dollars to thousands. After the death of Princess Diana, the British royal photographer Glenn Harvey and his colleague Mark Saunders co-authored a book named Diana and the Paparazzi, whose right of movie adaptation was sold at nearly 10 million pounds. Harvey admitted in the book that they did this only for money. In fact, most of the paparazzi don’t take any interest in digging into the private lives of public figures; rather they do it just for the enormous economic benefit it brings.

However, some members of the paparazzi do enjoy a sense of achievement and authority. Zhuo Wei, regarded as the “Godfather of Chinese Paparazzi”, said he feels successful and satisfied when a public figure begs him not to show something to the public. Zhuo even equates his job to that of a policeman.

Public figures hate the paparazzi and physical altercations happen every now and then between them. But they also need and benefit from each other. Some actors prefer to exchange their privacy for recognition. For example, some indecent pictures of Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi relaxing on a beach were released in 2009 just before one of her movies shot in Hollywood screened across the US. The release of the pictures was considered to serve as a promotion for the movie.

It is not fair to accuse paparazzi of breaking other people’s families or raking up others’ faults, because they are just “sellers” of information. Criticism should be targeted at those who’ve made mistakes, but not at the paparazzi. The nature of a mistake does not change with or without the exposure by paparazzi, as long as they don’t distort facts or infringe on other people’s basic rights. It is the infidelity itself, not a report by the paparazzi, that leads to the breakup of a family.

Columnist Victoria Newton of British newspaper The Sun won a British Press Award in 2006 for her excellent entertainment reports. She was said to be able to strike a perfect balance between positive and negative press. For example, her report on a homosexual actor was supported by the actor himself and served as an example of good publicity.

Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed died in a car accident in Paris in 1997.

As the supplier of entertainment information, paparazzi also need to observe professional ethics. Distorted information cannot avoid criticism. In the 1990s, the relationship between Prince Charles and Princess Diana attracted the attention of British tabloids. The Sun published some photos of Princess Diana playing with James Hewitt in her bedroom, which seemed to have been taken by a telephoto lens but later proved to be a work of post-production. The editor of Daily Mirror admitted that he had asked his photo editor to turn the head of Dodi Fayed around in a picture to make it look as if he was kissing Diana.

In addition, paparazzi should also follow some non-binding rules. It is legal to take pictures of a public figure in a public space, but it is illegal to point the camera at his or her bedroom. Infringement upon the normal life of a public figure and overexposure of his or her family members is very likely to trigger indignation from the public, which sometimes leads to serious consequences. For instance, the paparazzi took responsibility for the death of Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed because the car accident was partly caused by their reckless pursuit.

Experts say it is illegal to collect information about the private life of a public figure through unfair tactics. In 2011, pictures of Hong Kong actor Bosco Wong naked in his home were published in two magazines. Wong filed a lawsuit against the two magazines and the court required the latter to publish a letter of apology and pay HK$2 million to Wong in compensation.

Gossip is an industrial chain of privacy information, which involves public figures, paparazzi and the public. There is a subtle balance between the three parties. Paparazzi spend time and energy to collect some information about the privacy of a public figure and the latter can obtain constant exposure through showing part of his or her private life to the public. They benefit each other if the balance is well maintained. If everything is done within the limits, no one should be considered morally right or wrong in this industrial chain.

(Edited by Billie Feng)

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