JOURNALISM ETHICS AND CONFESSIONAL JOURNALISM
Confessional Journalism has become a staple of contemporary journalism, either in the form of first person real life experiences (often ghosted by journalists) or regular columns by journalists detailing intimate details of their lives. The form is now recognised as a distinct genre but what has not received attention, except as an internal debate within journalism itself, are the consequences for journalism and journalists themselves of this form of writing. There is mounting evidence that editors are exerting pressure towards this type of writing, favouring particular types of writers. This article investigates the compelling ethical implications for writers and their subjects within the genre and argues that these implications are producing distinctive journalistic responses and strategies. .
Keywords: confessional journalism, autobiographical journalism, journalistic ethics, privacy, real people in media
Invading your own privacy: the Myerson Affair
When news of the imminent publication of Julie Myerson’s book The Lost Child reached the press, few anticipated the furore that would follow. Ostensibly, the book was about Mary Yelloly, a girl who died young of TB in Victorian times. Myerson had interwoven this lost child’s tale with an account of her estrangement from her own son, Jake, who she evicted from home after a violent fight. Jake, she claimed, was ‘lost’ to drugs. Within days of the first publicity, the story began to escalate in the British media with commentators taking sides over the ethics of a journalist exposing her own child in this way. While columnists drew up positions, the ‘real life’ mother and son came forward to fight it out in the media. Myerson defended herself (interview in The Sunday Times, 8 March 2009) while her son Jake, easily traced by a tabloid, via his Facebook page, retaliated that his mother ‘was slightly insane.’ (The Sun 4March 2009) Even Myerson’s husband Jonathan, joined in, saying Julie had been motivated to write this book to ‘help others’ whose children had been ‘claimed’ by skunk. (The Guardian 10 March 2009) Jake gave a longer interview, this time to The Daily Mail calling the publication of The Lost Child, “obscene”, adding ‘she’s been doing it all my life.’
The media was gripped by this family fight but there was more at stake. It had also become a debate on the ethics of a professional writer exposing her own child’s life in this way. Views were polarised. Myerson was either brave for publicising how skunk affects families. Or she was mad– and cruel- for talking publicly about her son’s troubles without his permission, damaging his chances of recovery by this public humiliation. Several British columnists were savage in condemnation. Jan Moir asked “What sort of a mother would ignore her son’s pleas then go ahead to publish and damn her first born for ever more.” (The Daily Mail, 5 March 2009) Minette Marrin said the book was a “betrayal not just of love and intimacy, but also of motherhood itself” (The Sunday Times 8 March 2009) while Tim Lott commented “Julie has betrayed Jake for her own ambition.” (The Independent 8 March 2009)
This later view gained currency when it emerged that The Lost Child was not a ‘once-off’ by an agonised parent confronted with a drug- addicted offspring, but another output from a writer who had already made liberal use of her family for her career. Like St Peter, she denied it thrice, but Myerson was soon “outed” as author of the Saturday Guardian’s anonymous column ‘Living with Teenagers’. This had ended abruptly a few months earlier when the teenagers in question discovered not only were they the subjects of this revealing column but all their school friends and school friends’ parents had guessed this already. After The Guardian confirmed Julie Myerson was the author, it removed the articles from its website to “protect their privacy.” (Becky Gardiner The Guardian, Tuesday 10 March 2009)
The controversy which broke had a particular resonance for me. For two years I had written the column which went alongside Julie Myerson’s in the Family section of the Saturday Guardian. The column , “Looking after Mother”, was about my mother, who had developed dementia, and whose care was increasingly demanding. The column, published under my own name, tracked the daily experiences of caring for someone in this condition. It was about the painful experience of watching my mother’s decline, the difficulties of the unrecognised work of caring for someone in this condition and struggles with doctors, hospitals and social workers. It was also about humorous occasions which arose with someone as spirited as my mother and it sat well beside Julie Myerson’s column. They were two ends of the domestic lives of women.
However, during the period of writing I often vacillated myself between the two dominant responses to Myerson’s book : on the one hand it felt important to raise these issues. Dementia is after all a subject often swept under the carpet and which now affects increasing numbers. Readers of the column who corresponded often confirmed this. The column, they said, made them feel they were not alone with their difficulties, and they appreciated having their own experiences with elderly dependents reflected back to them. On the other hand I continued to have doubts. These doubts were about the ethics of exposing the life of someone else who was still alive and who had no real control over the representations. As I wrote in one column, I never really knew how much my mother actually consented since, in her condition, it was difficult to give full consent. I once received a letter – was it from someone who knew my mother? – saying, “how dare I write about somebody else’s life like this?” The letter claimed I was abusing her privacy. Although it was the one critical voice among much appreciation, in moments of doubt it was the one I thought about.
After two years, I decided to finish this column, writing in the final article “If I continued, it would be increasingly with the indignities and decline. Mum herself does not really seem to mind. ‘No, no,’ she said the other night, ‘write what you like. I’d like to find out about myself.’ But not everyone in my family has seen it that way and I’ve met some opposition for ‘invading her privacy’. I know there are greater difficulties ahead, decisions we will have to take about how she is looked after, how we deal with decline, and sadly there will probably be more family conflict. While I genuinely believe it has been, and would continue to be, a good thing to explore this publicly – because these issues affect so many people now – simultaneously I know that to continue would not leave open the possibility of healing family division.” (Guardian 18 October 2008)
In exposing my mother’s decline I had run up against some of the fundamental dilemmas arising from this confessional writing and which the Myerson scandal threw into relief. Characters in confessional autobiographical columns are not (at least ostensibly) fictional. They are real people – the writers and the subjects of the columns. And while many of the writers like Julie Myerson, and myself are professionals, earning money from these stories, some of those subjects – mothers, lovers, children – have not given their consent, or have given consent that they do not fully understand. Nor do they necessarily benefit from exposure. Sometimes they are people in direct conflict with the writers and their version of events, as Jake Myerson was. Is it therefore exploitation to reveal their lives? What are the ethics for self-exposure?
This is no parochial debate about minor ‘domestic’ columns. The Myerson scandal is a small tip of a large iceberg. This autobiographical writing, exposing intimate personal details, is part of rapidly growing cultural trend towards the inclusion of ‘real life stories’ in the media, and linked to exposure of ever more intimate personal details. Confessional journalism comes in many and varied forms: cancer diaries like those of Ruth Picardie in The Observer (1996) or John Diamond in The Times (1997-2001); divorce diaries like that of Penny Brookes’ in The Telegraph (2006); and regular weekend personal columns, like Tim Dowling’s in The Guardian (2007- present). Most newspapers now carry ‘domestic columns’ where the main substance is the individual’s daily life. The most extreme example of this is Liz Jones, formerly editor of Marie Claire, who writes a weekly column in the Daily Mail’s You magazine detailing her obsessions with cleaning and dieting, and the intimate details of her philandering ex-husband’s emails and sex life.
Rachel Cooke, a fellow journalist, branded her ‘the queen of confessional journalism.’ (The Observer August 2009)
This is not a specifically journalistic phenomenon. Critics (Ellis 2008, Hill 2004, Bignell 2005) have exposed how television has a similar fascination with ‘real people’ and their experiences, scrutinising them as social experiment or entertainment. In programmes like such as Wife Swap real families are transported into experimental situation; in Brat Camp or Super Nanny, families expose their troubles and attempts to get help. The same phenomenon is present in books, and on the internet. In publishing, few genres have been so successful recently as ‘misery memoirs’, ‘true stories’ of harrowing childhoods, like barrister Constance Briscow’s memoir Ugly. On Facebook, the social network, people ‘update’ intimate details of their lives to friends, and also strangers. The internet allows us to read personal blogs of strangers. Real life confessions have become so much part of the experience that Andrew Keen (2007) has dubbed much internet content ‘digital narcissism.’
Writing about autobiographical journalism elsewhere, I have situated this phenomenon in the wider context of the confessional society (Coward 2009) with its need to witness other people’s emotions and abilities to cope. This is the same fascination with so-called ordinary people on ‘reality’ TV shows as explored by Ellis (2001) and Frosch et al (2008) Key here is the scrutiny of so-called ‘ordinary’ people as they react to different situations, a scrutiny arising from a deeper social and moral imperative. “It is as if a culture which is no longer under strict moral instructions from established authorities – the church, parents, the state – has begun to ask not how should we react, but how would we react?” (Coward 2009 p 239) The growing fascination with revelatory personal details also occurs in a context where the difference between private and public is breaking down so what we learn of people’s lives is increasingly intimate. I have also pointed out that journalism has a particular status here because, in a context where the possibility of fakery is never far away, journalism brings associations of authenticity , making personal columns by journalists or ordinary people, framed by the discourse of journalism, a significant place for this.
Understanding this phenomenon in a wider context is important but there are other issues engendered by this kind of journalism which require attention. These are the practical and ethical consequences for journalism and for journalists themselves. The growth of this form of writing has begun to impact on commissioning and journalistic conventions. On one hand, it affects the forms of writing and writers preferred; on the other, it has real ethical consequences for people caught up in this kind of journalism, as in the case of Julie Myerson’s son where a vulnerable young man’s wellbeing was at stake. Discussion of the ethics of journalism and privacy (Keeble 2001, McNair 2000, Kieran 2004) has so far neglected problematic consequences for the subjects of confessional journalism.
Practical and Ethical Consequences for Journalism and Journalists
“Do you have a personal story about the break-up or survival of a marriage?” asks the Features Dept of The Daily Telegraph inviting readers to make contact. (20 February 2006) This appetite for confessional journalism or first person real life experience is typical. Sometimes these are submitted by readers but often they result from interviews and are written up ‘as told to’ with journalists’ by-lines. There are agencies devoted to finding real life stories and several newspapers have sections or supplements dominated by this kind of writing: The Sunday Times ‘News Review’; The Guardian’s ‘ Family’ section; and The Daily Mail’s ‘Fe-Mail’
This could be regarded as ‘dumbing- down’, replacing hard news with soft, personalised features, and eroding old distinctions between feature- dominated magazines and news- dominated newspapers. But along with other critics (Keeble 2001, Christmas 1997) I have argued this development is more complex, reflecting the incorporation of domestic , personal and emotional issues which had previously been neglected and which were important for women. Their inclusion reflects both a democratisation and a feminisation of content, what Christmas calls a ‘humanising’ of news values.
Becky Gardiner, who commissioned Myerson, has described the attractions of this journalism. “The column was so good it was chilling – it was beautifully written, but also had a rawness to it, an honesty that was breathtaking. It was real. The writer was ruthless in her descriptions of herself – here was a mother who had no idea how to handle her children’s tempers and tantrums, and who was bewildered by her conflicting feelings of exasperation, love and loss.” (The Guardian, 10 March 2009)Gardiner and her co-editor had misgivings about publishing the columns but always “offsetting any ambivalence we felt, was the extraordinary response from readers.”| Although they received complaints “we received many, many more letters from readers for whom the columns resonated. Thank you, they said, for showing me I am not alone.”
Gardiner foregrounds the positive, consoling aspects of women recognising their own own dilemmas in print. However the trend towards confessional journalism has moved far beyond the personal as point of entry to wider social and psychological dilemmas becoming an end in itself, increasingly narcissistic, intimate and self- engrossed from the writer’s point of view and increasingly voyeuristic from the audience’s. It is debatable whether Liz Jones’ ruminations on her unpopularity and self- loathing help readers with their own feelings or offer up the spectacle of a disturbed personality. However resonant, Myerson’s column also contained intimate sexual and personal details which many readers regarded as highly intrusive such as revelation that her youngest son had begun to grow pubic hair.
It is also becoming evident that feature writers, especially women, are experiencing pressure towards ever this emotional strip-tease. Rachel Johnson, who for many years wrote the “Mummy Diaries” in The Daily Telegraph, has said “You are under an immense pressure from your editor to put in as much personal material as possible, especially if they know what your specific weaknesses are.” (Quoted in Matthew Bell ‘Keep it the family’ The Independent, 15 March 2009) Freelancer Jill Parkin endorses this: “If you’re not a celebrity, commissions are harder than ever to come by since the credit crunch, but not if you can find something weird or shameful about yourself to write up… Editors no longer want my shorthand or my interviewing skills, or even my way with words. They want my body and soul, two things I’m not used to hawking”. (The Guardian 27 April 2009) A ex- editor of a leading women’s consumer magazine, now freelancing for national newspapers, who preferred to remain anonymous, agrees, speaking of pressures she now experiences from feature editors to include intimate experiences( interview with author 20 July 2009). These are pressures which as an editor she would never have put on writers. Journalists are being pressurised to abandon the idea of describing what they see in the outside world and instead to plunder their own interior world in an act of self- cannibalisation.
There are of course male domestic columnists like Tim Dowling in The Guardian’s Weekend supplement and Chris Cleave in The Guardian’s “Family” section. Men also write powerful occasional features about intimate events. Journalist, John Diamond’s cancer diary remains one of the most searingly honest accounts of terminal cancer. Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor, has written about his father’s death, (1July 2005) and sports’ journalist, Mathew Engel, wrote powerfully about the loss of his child to leukaemia. (The Guardian, 3 December 2005) However, most journalists working in this genre are women, it being a form of journalism with strong ‘female’ associations, and it is women experiencing the pressure. “Male writers also raid their family lives and their own psyches for copy, but no one asks them to tear themselves apart in the process” writes Jill Parkin “ The soul-baring confessional has become the biggest market in town for women writers”( ibid)
Confessional journalism generally tracks failed relationships, problems with children, traumatic sexual experiences, sexual problems, divorces, stalking and so on but Parkin highlights one trend of particular significance for women. She describes articles in which female journalists expose weaknesses and failures, especially in relation to body image and body loathing, as ‘fem- humiliation’ :“right now it’s just about the best-paid thing there is because the appetite for fem-humiliation among commissioning editors is insatiable.” (ibid) She describes how one female colleague has become categorised as the ‘fat writer’ “She’s told us how she wakes up with chocolate all over her bed from gorging herself the night before; we’ve heard how in desperation she took a weight-loss drug that gets rid of fat through defecating; and we have had – recently running in The Daily Mail – a weight loss contest between her and another overweight woman journalist. These are not things that men are ever asked to do. Body hatred is the main staple of women’s confessionals at the moment.”(ibid)
Several of the highest profile female columnists plough this furrow offering themselves as up as prone to failure – at dieting, relationships, social occasions. Columnist Julie Birchill’s may have started the trend in The Guardian in the Nineties. She combined opinionated pieces with personal domestic detail and in spite of her abrasive, self -confidence, the persona she created was decidedly ‘unthreatening’, prone to spending long periods on her sofa, talking about her broken relationships. Columnists like Zoe Williams , Lucy Mangan, and the Tanya Gold (all writing in The Guardian) seem to be cast from the same mold. These are humorous writers, presenting themselves as unthreatening by writing about their failures and personal inadequacies, like Tanya Gold writing about her disastrous attempt to camp at Glastonbury. Their columns are self -exposing, rather than self-mutilating. But there are clear dangers, “Writing like this robs you of your professionalism and dignity, turning you into the story,’ says Jill Parkin, “If you keep feeding this monster, eventually it eats you. There is nothing left for you to write about; you have exposed yourself in the most degrading way, opening your wounds; and the commissioning editors will simply turn to fresher tortured flesh.” (op cit)
Tanya Gold is an extreme example of journalistic self- cannibalism yet even she had qualms about Myerson’s use of her children for material. “It’s is a golden rule that you can only write about yourself… If you are writing for money, for self-acceptance, or publicity, you only have the right to explore your own life and nobody else’s. I happen to like writing about myself so I do, but Julie Myerson is lying to herself if she thinks she is helping her son by writing. You should consult a psychotherapist before consulting your publisher.”
Real people, Real Consequences,
The Myerson ‘scandal’ fore-grounded the ethical dilemmas of confessional journalism even provoking a degree of heart searching amongst journalists themselves. Daily Mail journalist Tom Utley, author of a column about teenagers, “A Father Writes”, says he was never under any pretence about his motives. “All I can say is that you have to stare at a blank computer screen, with the sub-editors glaring at the clock and the prospect of £350 dangling before you, to understand the family columnist’s irresistible temptation to overstep the mark.” “It’s a small price to pay for the school fees,” Rachel Johnson added. (both quoted in Matthew Bell op cit)
Confessional writing may be the order of the day but the predominant feeling amongst fellow columnists was that Myerson had crossed a “previously carefully observed line” (ibid) Toby Young, author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, admits he writes about his children adding “They’re all under six, but when they get older I will have to establish a ground rule to run anything past them first.” (ibid) Liz Jones argued there was an obligation to be honest but even she conceded that “with children it’s a lot trickier” (ibid) Jones ex- husband , regularly shamed in her columns, agreed. “I’m not angry with what Liz did, because I’m a grown man and could walk out at any time. The difference is that Liz exposed herself, whereas Myerson has exposed her son.” (ibid)
The fierce response to the revelation that Myerson was also author of the heretofore anonymous column, Living with Teenagers led The Guardian to act. Myerson’s editor, Gardiner concluded “What we now know – but did not know then – was that the Myerson family was in the grip of a family crisis. Had I known that, I like to think that I would have put aside my editor’s appetite for a great column, and advised Julie not to publish, directing her instead to people who might have been able to help them and their son.” (op cit) The Living with Teenagers column was withdrawn from the website ‘to protect the children’s privacy’ although many pointed out, the damage was already done. Siobhan Butterworth, reader’s editor, suggested editors should no longer “view the decision to publish private information as purely a matter of parental choice.”  (The Guardian 6 July 2009) The paper followed her advice updating their editorial code to cover journalists writing about their children. “The new provisions contain the advice that where children are old enough, their consent to publication should be sought, and suggest editors consider whether children’s identities should be obscured online to protect them from embarrassment or harm as they grow older. Anonymous articles that include significant intrusions into children’s private lives without their knowledge or consent need a strong public interest justification.’(ibid)
These guidelines however only scratch the surface. What of my own mother, with dementia? What is the status of her consent? How old is old enough? The advice for anonymity is also vague. Only a few weeks later, The Guardian itself published an article on teenagers who hit their parents. Although the teenagers’ names had been changed the author Christine Lewis used her own name. ( 27 June 2009) How difficult would it be to identify those children? As yet, neither the Press Complaints Commission nor any other paper has introduced similar guidelines and while the issue of children is clearly most pressing, there are growing numbers of other ‘real life’ conflicts arising from confessional journalism. Liz Jones’ diary is the most extreme example. Her husband famously retaliated against his public humiliation by writing his own column in The Evening Standard . Now her neighbours it seems are objecting to becoming copy: ’Shotgun bullies are driving me out of rural haven.’ (The Daily Mail 7 Sep 2009)
Rachel Royce, ex-wife of broadcaster and columnist Rod Liddle, also wrote graphically about her divorce. One commentator described the ensuing spectacle where each partner revealed intimate and shaming details about the other as “an unedifying public spectacle of bilious accusations and emotional pornography. ” ( The Observer 11 july 2004) Lauren Booth, Cherie Blair’s half sister, was involved in a similar tussle over invading the privacy of her own family. In The Daily Mail, Booth related how marital difficulties culminated with her announcing on Facebook that she was now single. Her husband, upset, stormed out and was knocked off his motor bike sustaining life- threatening injuries. (The Daily Mail 4 May 2009) This article, full of intimate details, was followed by another detailing her husband’s injuries and slow recovery. At this point his mother retaliated, comparing Lauren Booth unfavourably with another woman who had also written about a husband’s accident. “His wife…went to great lengths to preserve her husband’s dignity. I only wish my daughter-in-law would respectfully do the same for my son while he is still in such a vulnerable state, and that she will cease writing such articles about him.” (The Daily Mail 11 July 2009) 
Even commentators who rushed to condemn Myerson have themselves occasionally stepped over the line. Condemning Myerson, The Times columnist, Mary-Ann Sieghart, declared she had given up writing about her children, but she had certainly run into trouble previously. She had referred so often to her children’s talents that she became the butt of Private Eye satire for her relentless boasting. “On one occasion, her daughter was mortified after a sub-editor put the headline “Modesty forbids” on an item in which Sieghart wrote of an unnamed girl who had come up with a clever science slogan. “That was the tipping point”, she says. “I don’t write about them any more.” (Matthew Bell op cit )
Conventions of Evasion
The Myerson saga might have brought to the surface and produced localised guidance around children , but it’s unlikely to be last conflict between confessional journalists and their families, given the pressure to produce this kind of journalism. And while ethical guidelines are slow in coming and unclear, there are indications that journalists are already adopting certain strategies to circumvent the outright disaster – and condemnation- of Myerson’s book.
Most noticeable is the way authors continue to write about their children and partners but avoid naming them. Tim Dowling writes about Son 1, son 2 and eschews too much personal details about them (although his wife does not receive the same protection). But it would not be hard for their peers to identify them. Zoe Williams writes about “Baby T”, and Lucy Mangan’s husband is known throughout as ‘Tory Boy’. The end result is a strange merger of the depersonalised with the highly self -revelatory. Some writers, like Tim Dowling incorporate questions of how much the people written about actually know about the column while Liz Jones, the maestro of self- referentiality, constantly exposes , analyses , and usually dismisses peoples’ objections to appearing in her column.
Another strategy is the faux persona , created to deal with the problem of appearing either to boast (the Seighart problem) or to expose and shame the child (the Myerson problem). Instead a new genre of writing is emerging where the parents are outsmarted by their kids and made to look foolish. Jill Parkin rightly worries about ‘fem humiliation’, but there is also ‘faux humiliation’, where writers construct hopeless personas . Analysing psychological motivation behind this is beyond the scope of this article but it probably emerges from trying to avoid ‘smugness’ in order not to connect with the audience in unthreatening ways. Whatever the motivation, what is emerging is a convention of the hopeless and humorous parent or partner. Far from opening up domestic and emotional life to scrutiny it is closing it down with new stereotypes.
There is also a point where the faux persona slides into falsehoods and again we find Liz Jones at the forefront. Jones always justifies her inclusion of details which other journalists would balk at as a journalist’s obligation to be honest. Nevertheless some have suggested she too is capable of evasion and invention. For most of her columns on her rural life, she complains of extreme isolation, but another journalist interviewing her, noticed her sister appeared to be living with her. Jones quickly pointed out this was only temporary. But shortly after this interview Jones mentioned for the first time that her sister was staying. At the heart of confessional journalism, a series of conventions, strategies, stereotypes and evasions are consolidating, some dealing with ethical dilemmas, some hyping up the situations.
This focus on intimate personal details, combined as it is with the fascination with ‘real’ people and real experience could rightly be claimed to be a new cultural form, a media of personal revelation, sometimes confessional, sometimes exposing. With this confessional, revelatory society have come a whole series of new dilemmas, of which the Myerson saga was symptomatic, raising whether it is ‘exploitative’ to reveal details of one’s own family’s lives. In particular it fore-grounded the issue of invading one’s own privacy, whether it is ever right to expose children in this way; and what is the effect on people when they find their lives revealed in this way. The Guardian, at the centre of the Myerson scandal, introduced new editorial guidelines but given the widespread nature of this kind of journalism, it is unlikely to be the last time such issues arise. In the meantime, many journalists, especially women journalists, are feeling pressurised towards this kind of writing. And writers who work in this area are adopting new conventions and developing strategies of avoidance which undermine the demands of the genre for absolute honesty.
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 Not only is there a fascination with stories from real life, these stories are also likely to be more intimate, and extreme, addressing moments previously off limits, like a TV programme about Siamese twins which focused on their sex life. Big Brother embodies these shifting boundaries. With each new series the possibility of privacy is reduced: now the contestants sleep in the same bedrooms increasing the chance that some of the contestants will have sex on screen. Meanwhile on Celebrity Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity Get my out of Here, the central drama is to see how celebrities manage a lack of privacy in the context of exposure to extreme experiences.
 For example James Frey has been accused of wildly exaggerating his experiences in A Million Little Pieces
 The Front page agency
 This discussion on Mumsnet website made it clear that many parents objected strongly to the narcissism of the writer of this column and the exposure of her children.
 Quoted in Matthew Bell ‘Keep it the family’ The Independent, 15 March 2009
 Siobhan Butterworth The Guardian 6 July 2009
 The Daily Mail 11 July 2009