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Monday, September 07, 2009

Private life of public figures.

The resignation of NSW Health Minister and premier-plotter John Della Bosca last week after revelations of an affair with a woman half his age revived discussion of the line between public life and personal affairs.

Lenore Taylor in The Australian thought publication was in the public interest, given some links between the affair and official duties, and the plans he shared with the lover about toppling the boss; some quoted in this report in The Age thought we had a right to know because of a breach of public trust but others disagreed; Adele Horin in the Sydney Morning Herald was at least pleased we are a little more adult about such things than the Americans but we may be on a slippery slide.

And what effect will all this have on thinking in government about the recommendations on the table from the Australian and NSW law reform commissions for a statutory cause of action for breach of privacy? Both Richard Ackland in the SMH last Friday and Jonathon Holmes on Media Watch tonight think the media campaign against is likely to suffer as a result. Holmes found these highly relevant parts of the NSWLRC report:
"As regards personal relationships, information about sexual relationships is generally private, at least in the case of consensual relationships between adults. This... generally applies to adulterous relationships...

The information would not... be private if the public interest in disclosure of the sexual relationship outweighed the plaintiff's interest in privacy in the circumstances"

and cast doubt about some of the public interest claims used to justify publication, with additional information that hadn't previously come to light.

If a cause of action did exist-and the two proposals aren't the same, so the elements of any action are not settled at this stage and governments haven't responded - I'm not so sure Della Bosca would have had a reasonable expectation of complete privacy about the affair, although the publication of some hot emails between the two might be harder to justify. But given that he was holding out to some that he was the best man for the top job (married to a Federal MP with her own claims to notoriety and the two a power couple in NSW politics) it might prove to be a challenge to convince a court his right to privacy was absolute and outweighed the public interest in knowing about his character, particularly his intention and capacity to deceive ( the wife and maybe the rest of us)
. No doubt there are plenty of other opinions out there.

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