Should the PCC investigate Susan Boyle coverage?

In Debate on June 1, 2009 at 9:27 am

Susan Boyle, of Britain’s Got Talent fame has been admitted to hospital under the Mental Health Act after coming second in the TV talent contest final this weekend. ‘Raging Susan’s mega strop’ – the Daily Star reports today.

She rose from a ‘quiet life in Scotland’ to global fame in a matter of weeks but the pressure appears to have been too great. Should the Press Complaints Commission investigate the newspaper coverage of Susan Boyle?

There is a credible case against the PCC investigating the coverage of Susan Boyle. It usually will only accept a complaint from people directly involved in the story. Ms Boyle has not complained to the PCC and may not wish the additional intrusion of an investigation by the commission.

Susan Boyle was aware that she would be in the spotlight when she volunteered for the show. She consistently said that she wanted to win the show and she could have looked at former contestants for an indication of the public profile it would bring.

Much of the coverage of Susan Boyle was positive. There was, of course, lots of coverage praising her vocal talents although a glance through the clippings suggests that a lot of this juxtaposed her voice with her looks. Sometimes this was positive coverage. Many commentators and public figures praised her ‘authenticity’ and suggested she was a new kind of icon for these times of economic hardship.

Some of the newspaper coverage may have been nasty or hurtful – and much of this was focussed on her appearance. . “Susan can be the face of big tummy-tuck pants” declared a headline in The Independent. The Sun provided a step by step guide “if you fancy trying out Susan’s special look”. However, that is no reason for the PCC to investigate. The code makes no reference to taste or decency. And again, Susan Boyle has not complained.

There’s a possibility that some of the coverage did breach the code. The PCC code states:

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications. Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent.
ii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in a private place without their consent.
Note – Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Under the headline “Susan is the best bra none” The Sun reported on 13 May that “The BGT star’s unsightly pink shirt gaped open when she left home, revealing the side of her breast”. In the Mirror on 6 May, an article by Jody Thompson was headlined: ‘Susan Boyle leaves home with her trousers undone – see the pic’. It may be that being photographed on your doorstep is not private, particularly if you area participant in a TV talent contest.

On 27 April The Sun ran a picture of Susan Boyle visiting her mother’s grave. This may have been taken with her permission, or perhaps the photo was organised by the producers of the show. But a graveyard may be a public place but is also one where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The Susan Boyle story has consumed media coverage over the last month and has not had a happy ending. But it does throw up some key questions for press self-regulation:

  • Is the PCC right to only respond to complaints from people directly involved in a story?
  • Should it pre-emptively investigate some of the possible intrusions into the privacy Susan Boyle?
  • Or should it just guide journalists through the minefield of judging where public interest starts and stops in this case?
  1. […] some of the coverage over the last few days. On Monday, this blog reported that there were possible invasions of Boyle’s privacy in some […]

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