‘Public Interest’ Needs To Be Defined

(Reuters) – A BETTER DEFINITION of ‘public interest’ would help British media organisations judge how far they can intrude into the private lives of the rich and famous, a study said on Monday.

Prominent figures have a right to a private life and any intrusion has to be justified by a higher public good, the report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University said.

Stephen Whittle, the report’s author, acknowledged this approach could mean some scandals remained uncovered.

‘There is greater public interest in protecting private life — and that interest must tolerate the occasional missed misdemeanour,’ said Whittle, a former BBC controller of editorial policy.

The concept of public interest affords some measure of legal protection when celebrities bring civil cases claiming invasion of their privacy and can also be used to justify the use of subterfuge by reporters.

Journalistic ethics are under the spotlight following fresh allegations of phone hacking by a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid.

Clive Goodman, a royal reporter from the News of the World, was jailed in 2007 for hacking into the phones of members of the royal family’s household to obtain exclusive stories.

The Guardian has reported the British newspaper arm of Murdoch’s News Corp has since paid £1 million to settle court cases with three people — including soccer executive Gordon Taylor — whose phones were violated.

News International has denied allegations its journalists hacked into the phone of thousands of public figures, and British police have said they will not investigate the claims.

‘The current allegations about the way in which the News of the World and other papers have sought to access personal data are a wake-up call to journalism,’ Whittle said.

‘A robust definition of the public interest is possible. It is already implicit in codes, statements and legislation.’

The report recommended a series of criteria to justify intrusion into private lives, including the exposure of fraud, corruption, other crime, and significant anti-social behaviour.

The Privacy, probity and public interest report was based on a year-long research project in which Whittle and co-author Glenda Cooper interviewed figures from across the industry.

… (Reuters, 14/07/2009) – Reporter accuses Murdoch editors in privacy row

… (Reuters, 15/07/2009) – Prosecutors won’t reopen case against reporter

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8 Responses

  1. Wow….the proposed exceptions seem reasonable…but having ones private life subject to constant public display isn’t healthy.

    • I would agree with that; but the problem is that many celebrities bombard editors with Press Releases in the knowledge that information about them sells newspapers. But it is also an editor’s duty to provide a true and balanced view – so someone who has constructed a whiter-than-white image with their agent, and then fails to live-up to it, has only themselves to blame.
      Newspapers are often unfairly criticized for ‘attacking’ a personality because the article is taken out of context with all the favourable pieces that have gone before. It would be great if editors had enough staff to fully vet the releases before publishing them, and, in the distant past, that may have been true; but not these days I am afraid.
      You just have to wait for intrepid reporters to trip-over the truth, and then confront their editor with all the lies he has previously published. Then, quite rightly, that story makes front-page news…

      • Unless of course the newspaper happens to be the Echo

      • Yes I was actually wondering about that when I read your piece…the lines are blurred by sometimes those on the artists’/celebs side…especially if they subject themselves to a reality based show…or play the cat and mouse game with the media….but i think once it goes from verifying sources to having to hack into ones phone/email….there is an understanding that that is wrong….unless their is of course one of those proposals….and i do think the papers that are accused of attacking are a bit guilty of that…there is reporting…and then there is a type of sensational bullying that is just uncalled for at times…its quite universal and frankly profitable…….one is more likely to buy the paper that gets their attention than one that just reports.

        • Intercepting someone’s communications is difficult to justify – unless public interest can be proved. And simply trawling communications without any justification is simply wrong (and is illegal under the law anyway). However, I do think it would be wrong to deny journalists any practical method of uncovering public interest features. It is how a particular method was used that really counts (and that determination, in my opinion, can only be made by a fully informed jury at a public trial).
          Using sophisticated methods to produce sensational ‘Camilla tapes;’ recount lurid telephone conversations and ‘trapping’ someone into a statement in order to manufacture a particular ‘proof,’ is always wrong; but we should not confuse the gutter press with professional journalism.
          The problem is, if you legislate against the gutter press, you also legislate against those newspapers and TV programmes, which operate upon pure journalistic principles: spreading truth and knowledge, defending justice, democracy and fair play, exposing wrong-doing and seeking to make the world a better place.
          Most journalists would lay down their lives for those principles – and many have…

          • Except for those at the Echo it would seem

            • Don’t be too hard on the reporters; they only file the stories. It is the editor that decides what he will publish.
              Besides, in the current economic crisis, with families to support, principles often lose-out (temporarily) to financial reality.
              As I understand it, at least one reporter did stand-up for her beliefs; but was moved shortly afterwards ‘for her own benefit.’
              SilverStarLaw called attention to ‘sensational bullying’ earlier – and that is something all responsible management try to avoid. Particularly local titles that do not have the financial resources to defend a libel action. I suspect the Echo’s editor is under such pressure too; but, just as a reporter serves the public, and not his news-desk, editors are there to uphold journalistic principles and represent their journalist’s views. Editors can always express their own opinion in the paper’s editorial columns if they conflict with a journalist’s article.
              That is the proper place for editorial comment. The position should not permit refusing solid news or investigative pieces that can stand scruitiny.
              And to SilverStarLaw I would add that a good piece of investigative journalism will out-sell all the sensational attempts at news by the gutter press. (And it does not have the downside of legal costs).
              I do not think the Daily Telegraph’s balance-sheet has ever been healthier.
              Perhaps the Echo’s editor, and its management, should consider that.

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