Phone privacy is sacrosanct – even for racists

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
May 01, 2014 /

Click here to view original /

The putrid stench lingering around Donald Sterling pre-dates the vile comments that led to his swiftly-executed lifetime NBA ban this week.

Back in a 2009 lawsuit, the Clippers’ former general manager, Elgin Baylor, documented a litany of inappropriate acts by the team’s then owner. My personal favourite was Sterling allegedly taking ladies on tours of the team locker rooms and encouraging them to “look at those beautiful black bodies“.


In recent days, it was the release to TMZ of a phone conversation Sterling had with another girlfriend. Again about black people. This time less pervy, and more so centered on their attendance at basketball games, their appearance in Instagram photos and something something about the Holocaust.

Working with the information I have, sure, Sterling seems like a jerk.

Sterling’s jerkiness, however, is quite a separate issue from whether the public has any rights to access the bile that drips from his orifices during private phone calls.

The leaking of private recordings, of private photos is, of course, the modern way we come to know about the skewed values of public figures. In staged appearances, in carefully worded statements, loathsomeness generally gets concealed. Left to their own devices, however, public figures can and do go rogue.

Without leaked photos, for example, we’d never have known that Julianne Hough wore blackface to a Halloween party. Ditto Prince Harry’s Nazi get-up to that fancy dress festivity. Without secret photos, we’d never have known about Michael Phelps’ penchant for the wacky tobaccy; without surreptitious camera phone recordings, John Galliano’s anti-Semitic bar rant would never have been exposed.

Delicious scuttlebutt, each of them, but in the public interest?

In a culture of rabid-dog paparazzi and citizen journalism, the distinction between public and private space is becoming increasingly blurry. Perhaps, therefore, it’s a fair call to think that in spaces where every stranger has a camera and microphone in their pocket, public figures need to err on the side of decorum.

Phonecalls, however, we consider sacrosanct. It’s the reason why we phone our friends to spill that terrifically sordid secret rather than post it as a status update on Facebook. It’s the reason why the News of the World phone hacking and the NSA phone tapping scandals seem so hideously egregious: we simply assume our tête-à-têtes are private. We assume, naively, perhaps, that our gossip about colleagues, or ill-informed racist diatribes and our musings on the latest episode of Game of Thrones are between us and the person we’re blabbing to. Sure, that other person might leak a little  – we kind of accept that. But record the conversation? Silver-platter it up to the media? Not even in our most paranoid of moments.

This isn’t the first time this has played out, of course.

Alec Baldwin’s beleaguered reputation was undoubtedly cemented by the news media airing his private voicemail message to his daughter. Ditto Mel Gibson’s phone call with baby mama Oksana Grigorieva. Years on, and both men are perceived as unhinged hotheads; a perception grounded in completely ill-gotten information.

I’m pro personal lives. I’m anti thought police. I’m pro prosecution of individuals whose racism or sexism leads to bad policy, to discrimination. Equally, I’m all for the exposure of politicians who preach knees-together “family” values while screwing around with gay abandon.

But most people aren’t politicians. Entertainers aren’t making the policies that trample our bodily freedoms, and I dare say we don’t look to basketball team owners as moral beacons.

So on what grounds is it our business to know that Donald Sterling is not a good person in real life? Who really cares if public figures are racist or sexist pigs in the privacy of their own phone calls? Should people lose jobs, lose sporting teams based on what they say in confidence to a loved one?

Sterling might have the world’s most wretched values. The harbouring of wretched values however – even the declaration of them in private conversations – is not grounds to have them recorded without permission and publicly disseminated. Even awful people have the right to privacy.

© Lauren Rosewarne