I’ve been mulling over the question of ‘Privacy’ lately – sparked by a recent media row that caught my attention whereby a Canadian doctor who is a writer as well as a military man wrote an article for the American magazine “Mother Jones” [http://www.motherjones.com] entitled “Talk to me like my father; Front line medicine in Afghanistan”, about his recent tour of duty and the things he experienced while there. There would be nothing remarkable about that – and it was a well-written piece – if he had not described in graphic detail the heroic efforts made to save the life of a Canadian soldier who had apparently been shot accidentally by a tent-mate and died shortly thereafter. Again – nothing remarkable about that – in fact, some would say that it is laudatory that the author brought the harsh reality of life ‘outside the wire’ to the public consciousness. The fatal error on his part however, was that he actually identified the soldier in question by name – thereby , some would say – violating patient-doctor confidentiality, committing a gross invasion of the deceased soldier’s privacy, not to mention the privacy of his grieving family and also cast into question his own ethics both as a writer and a ‘war correspondent’.

So the dilemma is now – should the doctor in question be sanctioned or not – and by whom? The Canadian Military? The Medical Board of Canada? Should he be sued by the parents and family for invasion of privacy – breach of confidence – what have you? At the very least, should he be pilloried in the Press for his actions? The other side of the coin is that the doctor/writer was instrumental in recruiting civilian doctors to work with the troops in Afghanistan in the first place. He is also lauded by his literary colleagues and has won various prestigious prizes for his writings. Does that however give him the right to breach the [implied] confidence of his patients? Is a war correspondent exempt from the normal expectations of confidence and ethics? If I was a war correspondent in Iraq for example – do I have carte blanche to describe everything I see in graphic detail as well as identifying the protagonists on either side? The answer appears to be – it depends. When American soldier Jessica Lynch was captured during the Golf War at the Battle of Nasiriyah in 2003 her story spread like a brush fire through all the major newspapers around the world. She was not only identified by name [and in photographs] but her injuries – either real or imagined on the part of the reporters – were documented fully. The identity of the man who informed the Americans of her whereabouts was also fully disclosed with the result that he and his family were subsequently granted asylum in the States for fear of their lives.

You young things out there will no doubt have only ‘seen’ the Kennedy assassination through old videos on YouTube but I remember the day’s events fully. It was one of those ‘you remember where you were when’ moments, like the death of Diana or the death of the Big Bopper [gotcha there huh?]. The newsreels played the scenes over and over again – the crowd running, shaky camera angles as the reporters scrambled to get a shot, the indelible image of Jacky Kennedy climbing over the back seat to get at her dying husband, the blood on her otherwise immaculate pink suit as she stood by the president elect as he was urgently sworn in… Now I ask you – was this the grossest invasion of privacy or was it an historical moment and therefore above and beyond the normal mores of society? Because the central character was a Head of State were the newspapers absolutely duty bound to show us, the reading public, those images over and over again without cease for days on end? And what about the death of Diana? A British television documentary program has just aired several hours footage dealing with this very subject – a documentary that has outraged her sons and her family because it purportedly shows images of her dying moments while she was still in the car in the Paris tunnel. Has this so far exceeded the bounds of propriety that it should never have been shown? Or is it just that we have the right to know everything when it comes to a head of state and/or a celebrity because this is part of the historical record, but the same does not apply in the case of an ‘everyday’ citizen? If this is true then what about all the stuff plastered around the news about Jessica Lynch? She was an ordinary citizen wasn’t she? Or was she different because she was a soldier – or a female – or just a handy propaganda tool …

If we had had newspaper reporters and video cameras when Mary Queen of Scots or Anne Boleyn went to the block, or a few aristos in France met their maker would we have all sat around watching it live on News at 10 or reading about it in the ‘The Daily Distress’ instead of standing outside with the unruly scrum knitting and jeering? Has the world gone mad? Are we so insatiable for gore and voyeuristic detail that we take positive pleasure in the suffering of others – there’s that old Schadenfreude raising its ugly head again – or are we justly entitled to be well-informed of all the world’s events – ugly and distressing as they may be? And of course if some people are hurt along the way – such as the heart-broken and grieving family when their son is identified by name and his death is described for all the world to see – well that’s just too bad in the larger scheme of things. We the public have a right to know!

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