A protest movement in Hong Kong (led by one of my favorite entertainment figures, Jackie Chan), sheds light on some interesting differences between America’s wide-open Omniculture and other, politically different places, and also on a conflict endemic to modern societies and which will surely become increasingly thorny.
Jackie Chan and fellow stars marched silently Tuesday to Hong Kong’s government headquarters, protesting against a gossip magazine that featured a cover photo of a pop singer changing backstage.
The celebrities, wearing black T-shirts, handed over a petition denouncing the photos that were secretly taken of Hong Kong pop singer Gillian Chung, part of the popular female duo Twins. The stars urged the government to tighten laws governing racy publications.
Chung was shown adjusting her bra backstage after a concert in Malaysia’s Genting Highlands. It appeared on the cover of the current issue of Easy Finder weekly.
That is what’s considered racy over there, in terms of open publication at least. And in great contrast to America’s entertainment community, which perpetually worries that the nation is sliding down a slippery slope to imminent federal censorship of entertainment (an entirely absurd notion), the Hong Kong entertainers and members of the public are actually calling for the government to step in and stop certain types of publication:
The photos have sparked a major backlash. Government regulators have received a deluge of complaints. Hong Kong’s Obscene Articles Tribunal has classified the magazine issue "indecent," which could lead to prosecution. Chan and fellow stars attended a TV special protesting the photos Monday.
Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang spoke out against the photos Tuesday.
"I identify with society’s strong criticism of these tactics," he said.
I’m not familiar with Hong Kong’s constitution, but I suppose that like that of its former parent Great Britain, and very much like that of its new overseer, China, it does not have press protections nearly as universal as those in our First Amendment (and even ours does not protect obscenity, although the Supreme Court has effectively defined the latter out of existence). Hong Kong journalists, in any case, disagree with the entertainers:
Journalists have opposed restrictions on their coverage as a threat to press freedom. Legal reforms propose banning secret surveillance by private parties, but the government is still considering the recommendations.
Chan acknowledges that celebrities are news and should expect to be treated as such:
Asked if he wants to see paparazzi photos banned completely, Chan said he believed celebrities should be held accountable for their actions.
Chan correctly observes, however, that invasions of privacy that would be illegal when done to noncelebrities should be illegal for everybody:
"As public figures, we should allow our pictures to be taken. If we crash our cars when we’re drunk, it serves us right. People should scold us. But for a girl to be photographed when she’s in a changing room, such a private place, is despicable behavior," he said.
AP reports that Hong Kong publications have indeed been closed down for such activities:
Eastweek magazine was shut down amid the backlash after publishing on its cover a photo of a visibly distressed, seminude female star, widely reported to be Carina Lau, in October 2002.
Eastweek was then owned by businessman Albert Yeung, who controls Chung’s record label EEG. It was later reopened under new ownership.
Certainly nothing like that is apt to happen here, although on the state level it would be perfectly constitutional, and on the federal level it would likewise be constitutionally acceptable in response to publications that traffic in obscenity. But even so, it won’t happen in the foreseeable future. (Note that I’m not advocating any particular policy in this situation but merely pointing out the constitutional issues.)
American entertainers complain about papparazzi, understandably, and they would certainly like to see local governments step in to ensure that people are prevented from intruding too greatly into their lives. (And I agree with them on that.) Even so, it is very difficult to imagine Hollywood entertainers calling for the government to attack the problem by suppressing the publications in which the photos appear. Well, impossible, really.
This is a very interesting controversy because it places in stark terms our current cultural conflict over what is public and what is private as media penetration into our lives becomes increasingly ubiquitous. It involves an endless series of tradeoffs, to which I think there will never be any easy, conclusive answer.