ABC Unleashed Blog November 2007
Nicole Kidman and Jamie Fawcett are at it again. Last week she took the stand in a Sydney courtroom to say, in a hushed whisper, that the paparazzo had made her feel ‘really, really, scared’ as he followed her car across Sydney while she was on her way to Greenwich for dinner with her parents. For his part Fawcett complained that while he had been photographing, on behalf of The Daily Telegraph, their first Christmas holidays together at Rosedale on the South Coast, Keith Urban had slowed their car down so Kidman could swear ‘f_ _k off, Jamie Fawcett’ to him from the passenger window.
Both were witnesses in a supreme court defamation hearing at which Fairfax was using the defence of truth against damages being awarded to Fawcett for a Sun Herald gossip column that had called him Sydney’s ‘most disliked freelance photographer’, and a ‘cowboy type’ who had wreaked ‘havoc’ on Kidman’s private life. The fatal attraction between the two is long and complex. Kidman is one of the world’s top celebrities, demanding huge fees for movies whether they are flops or hits, an actress whose fame does not rest so much on her thespian abilities (indeed critics often seem surprised when she turns in a good performance) as on her being constantly in the public eye because of her private life. Jamie Fawcett is merely the most notorious of the thirty or so paparazzi that work the Sydney beat, feeding the insatiable appetite of supermarket magazines for celebrity gossip. As Fawcett says, ‘Most readers of celebrity magazines want to see photographs of celebrities going about their lives, doing ordinary things, doing the shopping, arguing with the kids.’
Kidman took out an interim AVO against Fawcett after the car chase incident and accused him of planting a bugging device outside her home. Later, she attempted to create a temporary truce with Sydney’s photographer pack by sending a slab of beer out to them during her preparations for the Keith Urban wedding. But in April this year, presumably unaware of any contradiction, parked a 24/7 solar-powered surveillance van of her own outside her Darling Point mansion to photograph anybody who approached, and demand they say their name into a tape recorder. Fawcett, on the other hand, hired a yacht to sail near to where Urban and Kidman were honeymooning in Tahiti to photograph them with an extreme telephoto lens. But these spats are just more skirmishes in on ongoing war between celebs and paps in Sydney. For instance Sydney photographers squirted Heath Ledger with water pistols on the red carpet of the Brokeback Mountain premiere in retaliation for him spitting at them while he was shooting Candy.
If we iris out to this larger war we can see that what is really at stake is not Nicole’s precious privacy but the circulation of her face in the media. A celebrity’s capital is their instantly recognisable face. It is that which tops the designer frock on the red carpet, and that which is imperfectly disguised behind goggle sunglasses as the designer tots are loaded into the Hummer. Like any economic capital the use and distribution of the celebrity face needs to be closely controlled and regulated: it needs to remain scarce so its value remains high, but it also needs to be continually used so that it maintains its currency. This is what both celebrity and paparazzo implicitly understand and why they must be perpetually in conflict. As one paparazzo succinctly put it: ‘It’s the price of fame, my son. If we stop taking his picture, his price goes down. This is give and take, it’s fame. It’s the name of the game. You give us some of your private life because you earn so much money. That’s the way it works.’
Both push against the wall of acceptability from opposite sides. To Fawcett a celebrity should accept the responsibility of being photographed from any public space, since there is no legal right of visual privacy in public spaces for the rest of us. To Kidman, returning to her home town should grant her special ‘time off’ from the Hollywood hurly-burly. Kidman refuses to acknowledge that Sydney is now no longer the quaint home town of mum’s lamb roast, but has been turned by PR agents such as her own Wendy Day into a permanently over-exposed stage for celebrity spectacle, plugged as instantly into the global circulation of celebrity images as Hollywood, London or Paris. Fawcett, who himself has now become a celebrity in his own right, photographed by the AAP snapper Dean Lewins leaving the court room in a grey overcoat, refuses to realize that the toxic contract between celebrity and photography has caused its own blow back, where everybody has become more suspicious of the ulterior motives of men with cameras. All of us, whether celebrity or pleb, now instinctively wonder about what contracts we may be unwittingly entering into when we are photographed in public.
Meanwhile the judge has reserved her decision.
On February 27 the NSW Supreme Court judge Carolyn Simpson ruled in favour of Fairfax. Fawcett was not entitled to any damages, plus he was ordered to pay Fairfax’s legal costs which, when added to his own legal bill, will amount to several hundred thousand dollars. The Judge accepted Fairfax’s argument that the defamatory meanings in the case — including that Fawcett had behaved in such an intrusive and threatening manner that he had scared the actor — were true. In her judgment she said: ‘Ms Kidman was clearly afraid. The evidence amply demonstrates that Mr Fawcett’s conduct was `intrusive’ and `threatening’. ‘He was clearly motivated to obtain such a photograph, and he recognised that his remaining opportunities on that evening were very limited indeed.’ The Justice also found that Fawcett had placed a listening device outside Kidman’s eastern Sydney home in 2005, despite police not having charged him after investigating the incident. Outside court Fawcett said he was very disappointed with the judge’s ruling and was likely to appeal. “It is a massive economic decision for me,” said Fawcett, adding that he was “already hurting financially”.
Although this was a defamation case against a newspaper about derogatory comments made in its gossip column, it is likely to be received as a case where paparazzo versed celebrity and the paparazzo lost. It is likely to be accepted as a case that gives credence to the growing belief that there is some right of ‘privacy’ that protects the face, even in public, and some prima facie intrusiveness to any use of the camera.