The USA has long-held the geopolitical status of the land of freedom, stemming from the tides of George Washington and the founding fathers. In more recent times, the term ‘free’ has been bandied about in the globalised commercial and marketing lexicon, as an additional freebie to a purchase; a transactional extra. But, what constitutes press freedom? What does the phrase ‘born free’ mean? Are any of us truly born free?
The definition of ‘freedom’ is a featured theme in the Netflix Original documentary: ‘Nobody speak: Trials of the Free Press’, (which is available to watch on Netflix from June 23rd, 2017). Amidst the subterfuge of sensationalized online tabloid journalism in the Netflix Original documentary from Gawker (mainly), TMZ and the National Enquirer, there was a breaking story of the allegations surrounding Bill Cosby amongst other news stories that the online publication claims to fame. So, the point Gawker made in the documentary is ‘that we’re not all focused on sensationalism’ etc. The Bollea v. Gawker legal suit, which began in 2012 was cited as the “the first celebrity sex tape to go to trial”. Gawker maintained throughout the documentary that Bollea’s legal case was an infringement on press freedoms.
When a speaker in the documentary noted that Terry Bollea a.k.a. Hulk Hogan’s legal case was the first celebrity sex tape case to go to trial, I was instantly reminded of the leaking of Kim Kardashian’s sex tape in 2006 and how that culturally shaped us. We, as a collective mass consumer of news, changed. The day millions of people flocked to view the leaked sex tape of Kim Kardashian, was the day privacy and the personal in the public sphere changed. It catapulted how we viewed and value women in the stratosphere of reality tv, online journalism and docu-dramas. What we, as mass consumers of news, valued was the objectification of women, and we popularised and normalised the behaviour. Kim Kardashian became a household name, stratospherically famous, whilst Ray Jay, her rapper boyfriend at the time became a distant memory in the public lexicon and aforementioned cultural geopolitical mindset. The documentary notes how the sex tape of Paris Hilton was also leaked and it noted her rise to celebrity as a result. The fact Kim Kardashian sued Vivid Entertainment ‘a major producer of adult films’ in 2007, according to People magazine, for the distribution of the sex tape was not mentioned in detail in the documentary.
“I am filing legal charges against the company who is distributing this tape since it is being sold completely without my permission or consent,” Kim Kardashian stated.
“We are comfortable that we have the legal right to distribute this video, despite what others may say.” – Vivid co-chairman Steven Hirsch stated in the 2007 People magazine article.
Kim Kardashian dropped the law suit and it was reported by MSN.com that she settled out of court for $5 million in 2007. Their reality tv show ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’ was launched in the same year. Subsequently, how Kim’s choice to accept the settlement was not analysed in the documentary. Similarly, the decisions of Paris Hilton and other celebrities’ who settled out of court for leaked sex tapes, was not analysed in this documentary. A decade ago, culturally the debate surrounding how society views privacy was stifled and the cultural lexicon; our subsequent values and ethics in the online social public sphere, was not analysed or debated.
Terry Bollea sued Gawker media for invasion of privacy, emotional distress and defamation in 2012. Answering weird questions in the witness stand about the size of Hulk Hogan’s penis, Mr Bollea reiterated how Hulk Hogan of World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE fame was a public persona. He emphasised how Terry Bollea, the man, was different. In fact, Terry Bollea, the loving, compassionate and protective father of Brooke and Nick from VH1’s 2005 ‘Hogan knows best’ reality tv show, was omitted in the documentary. Instead, the documentary fixated on how Terry Bollea, the former face of his own line of children’s vitamins, “couldn’t cease to be Hulk Hogan.” The VH1 ‘Hogan knows best’ 2007 reality tv show resulted in a spinoff show call ‘Brooke knows best’, which focused on Brooke Hogan’s musical foray into the music entertainment industry, as a singer. This blatant omission is indicative of the bias of the documentary.
Initially beginning as a preliminary injunction in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida via plaintiff, Terry Bollea aka Hulk Hogan requested Gawker to take down the sex tape from the website. Gawker’s blatant refusal to do so, under CEO Nick Denton meant that Bollea withdrew his case in the district court and sued Gawker in the Florida state court.
The elusive definition of privacy rights, the jurisprudence of the First Amendment and how Bollea’s law suit was funded by philanthropic billionaire, Peter Thiel, appeared as a cumulative blindside for Gawker. On March 18th 2016, the jury awarded Mr Bollea $115 million in damages, $60 million for emotional distress and on March 21st, the jury awarded an additional $25 million in punitive damages. Gawker filed for bankruptcy.
Successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, one of PayPal’s founders and one of the first early investor’s of Facebook, Peter Thiel is cited alongside Sheldon Adelson, as billionaires who are suppressing the press. The allegation by Gawker that Thiel sought ‘vengeance’ for their outing of him as a gay man in 2007, falls short. A decade ago, to be an openly gay person meant something different (particularly in the workplace) than it does nowadays. On the same wavelength, the essence of what constitutes defamation and libel laws in the American constitution and judicial precedence is now something different, in part due to the changing tidal waves of social media platforms such as Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The irony is, that it is the likes of technology entrepreneurs such as Thiel, Sean Parker of Napster fame, founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Wikileaks, Julian Assange and creator of Snapchat, Evan Spiegel that have propelled us globally to discuss LGBTQ rights openly and freely via a status update, a tweet or a snap.
Sociologically and culturally, our globalised society has meant that we are now more connected than ever before in our history of evolution.
In Hootsuite’s 20th of August 2015 blog post ’11 Stats that Show How 3 Billion More People are About to Join Social Media’, now Editorial Manager of Hootsuite, David Godsall created a slideshow of ‘When the next 3 billion join social media’ at their event in 2015. It details plans for our globalised society to increase interconnectivity to the developing world. Hootsuite’s ‘Digital in 2017 Global Overview’ contains more up to date stats.
In the same 2015 blog post, Godsall mentions that in Facebook’s first year of their Internet.org initiative, it provided: “a free low-data web service to 9 million mobile devices from Kenya to Columbia.” Such a social entrepreneurship lightbulb initiative is an empowering tool for people within developing countries. At best, it aids to propel their business initiatives online and to empower their communities within dictatorships. At worst, it feeds into the hegemonic narrative from authors such as Noam Chomsky, of superpowers wanting to impose their culture onto people, who may be enjoying a simpler, happier albeit economically poorer existence. Again, it comes down to freedom of choice. People; regardless of ethnicity, economic status, caste, or education; have the freedom to participate in social media or not.
This documentary omits the fact that Peter Thiel was instrumental in the founding of the Oslo Freedom Forum, alongside many other philanthropic ventures such as his Thiel Fellowship. The Oslo Freedom Forum is what it says on the tin: a platform for the meeting of minds to discuss freedoms, human rights and peace in our modern technologically advanced society.
Additionally, originating from Norway is peace journalism. Peace journalism is a concept by sociologist and mathematician, Johan Galtung, which idealistically promotes peacekeeping journalism. Galtung was also one of the founders of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), which focuses on the academic discipline of peace and conflict studies.
A contributor in the documentary cited an underlying theme of the documentary: “We’re talking about the very notion of truth. What is true and what is false.”
When do we draw the line in the sand of click-bait journalism and fake news? When is enough?
A call for change is needed to preserve the noble freedoms of the press and of equal importance, is a call for change in the public debate encompassing press freedoms, privacy laws, social justice, truth, ethics, peace journalism and the everyday journalistic lexicon.
Author of The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the man who gifted the inspirational rhetoric for the French Revolution of ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains,’ has sustained the British ironic sense of humour in more recent times.
In the 11th of July 2012 Guardian article ‘For Rousseau, man is born free, but kept free only by compassion’ by Guy Dammann, “A fundamental tenet of Rousseau’s The Social Contract is that it is human institutions that set mankind free.”
The very concept of freedom historically was primarily intrinsic to being free from the shackles of slavery and war. The secondary power of personal freedom was inextricably entwined with economic freedom and morally being free. In Dammann’s article, he references Rousseau’s book ‘A discourse upon the origin and the foundation of the inequality among mankind’ as a more pertinent guide to ‘freedom’. Additionally, he recounts how Conor Cruise O’Brien’s opening line of ‘man is born free…’, “had no more meaning, he suggested, than the parallel idea that ‘all sheep are born carnivores, and everywhere they eat grass.'”
A Sundance Grand Jury Award 2017 documentary nominee, one thing is for sure; this documentary has sparked debate. The choice about how we choose to discuss this documentary remains our fundamental freedoms, our human rights and we can utilise social media to engage on this debate. The same civil and human rights, which Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Robert F. Kennedy, Mary Robinson, the current Irish President, Michael D. Higgins and countless others have fought for, needs to be at the forefront of our debate on privacy, the truth, social justice, ethics and our values. What is sacrosanct in our society now? What is private? What is the truth? Where do we find the ripple of peace?