Public interest is a concept that can be high-jacked by journalists themselves: a plea of ‘in the public interest’ is a favourite defence for journalism under attack. It is at the heart of the argument about the extent to which prying reporters and cameras should be allowed to invade personal privacy.
The Ofcom code says that ‘Where broadcasters wish to justify an infringement of privacy, they should be able to demonstrate why in the particular circumstances of the case, it is in the public interest. Examples of public interest would include revealing or detecting crime, protecting public health or safety, exposing misleading claims made by individuals or organizations or disclosing incompetence that affects the public.
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The BBC also has its own guidelines as it seeks to balance the public interest in freedom of expression with the legitimate expectation of privacy by individuals. There is no single definition of public interest, it includes but is not confined to: exposing or detecting crime, exposing significantly anti-social behaviour by those holding high office, preventing people from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation, disclosing information that allows people to make a significantly more informed decision about matters of public importance.
However, neither media code or attempts a full definition of the public interest.
The BBC requires a higher public interest test for secretly recording in a private place where the public do not have access, secretly recording medical treatments, secretly recording identifiable people in grief or under extremes of stress both in public and semi-public.
There are also some arguments over the media whether they are serving the public interest or interesting the public. Public/social purpose media should be informing and educating, but medias are more likely to weigh up the market-driven news values nowadays.
The news media are failing to serve the public interest because of the following points:
Firstly, abuse of individual right to privacy – Privacy and alleged invasions of privacy by the media are central issues in the ethics of journalism. Clearly, we live in a society that values personal privacy, and is concerned about intrusions into privacy from whatever source, including the media. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, we also live in a society that thrives on publicity, or at least one in which many individuals depend on publicity for their lives and activities.
This seeming paradox is usually defused by drawing a distinction between the private and the public aspects of people’s lives, and by further claiming that there is indeed a right to privacy, but that in certain circumstances the right can be overridden in the name of ‘the public interest’. This account of the matter accepts that in such circumstances an invasion of privacy has actually occurred but that the invasion can be justified by an appeal to a greater good.
The right to privacy is no more than a presumption ( though an important one), and that where some information about an individual that he or she would prefer to keep private should be in the public domain, then putting it there is not overriding that individual’s right to privacy because no such right ever existed concerning this aspect of the person’s life. There is, on this account, no such thing as a justifiable invasion of privacy because justification is in fact a demonstration that no privacy could properly be claimed in the first place. On this account, all invasions of privacy are unjustifiable.
This is particularly important in the case of politicians and others who occupy similar positions in society. Thus a politician who has his or her ‘secret love nest’ exposed in the press is not the victim of an invasion of privacy, because scandalous behaviour of this nature cannot legitimately claim the protection of privacy. This is not simply because politicians are in the public eye, but because they, and others in business and the media as well, wield power in society, and all aspects of the exercise of power must be open to public scrutiny. This is the only way to avoid corruption in public life, and by corruption. I mean more than financial chicanery. I do not say that politicians are not entitled to privacy, but that they are not entitled to abuse the right to privacy. In a democracy those who wield power cannot decide for themselves where to draw the boundary between the public and the private aspects of their lives.
In spite of the recent introduction in the UK of some legislative safeguards in the first two areas, there is a little that members of the public can do to assure themselves that their privacy is not being abused here. They simply do not know what is going on an cannot find out, for such abuse is normally hidden at source, even though it might have actual consequences for people’s lives. With invasions of privacy by the press it is wholly different, for here the victim obviously knows. This might explain why there is a considerable outery against invasions of privacy by the press – even though this is less harmful to individuals and the democratic political process than abuses in the other two areas – for here is an open target, easily identifiable, to soak up the public’s concern and wrath.
Hence the demand for the press to ‘clean up its act’, either voluntarily or, if this fails, through controls imposed by legislation. This threat of statutory restraints prompted the editors if the national newspaper in Britain to issue their own Code of Practice in 1989 to add the codes promulgate by bodies such as the Press Council ( now defunet) and the National Union of Journalists. The editors’ code and the Press Council code were later absorbed into a newspaper-industry code, monitored by the Press Complaints Commission, in which the voluntary protection of privacy, without legislative intervention, was a primary aim.
Secondly, interesting the public rather than serving ‘ the public interest’ – According to the trend, the pursuit of profit has replaced that of serving the public interest as the driving force of journalism. News producers – even those like the BBC which are free of direct commercial pressures – have been required to become more an more oriented towards ratings, subordinating the journalistic obligation to inform to the more audience-friendly task of supplying entertainment. The result of these pressures has been an explosion of infotainment – journalism in which entertainment values take precedence over information content, presented at an intellectual level low enough to appeal to the mass audiences which comprise the major media markets(‘ the lowest denominator’, as critics frequently express it). Lower, too, than a healthy democracy demands. Political journalism is said to be conforming to the pressures of tabloidisation observed elsewhere in the media: a term which used interchangeably with dumbing down and infotainment, functions as shorthand for the offence, as it is often characterised, of catering for popular tastes.
One manifestation of this trend would be the media’s contemporary fascination with elite deviance( sexual, financial or moral), as in the cases of Conservative and Labour politicians in Britain throughout the 1990s, an of course Bill Clinton, whose ‘sex addiction’ was a prominent theme of political journalism in Britain as well as the United States during the 1990s, exemplified by coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998-9. The ‘sleaze’ agenda which featured prominently in British and American political news for most of that decade was alleged to be driven by market forces rather than public interest, in so far as the relentless commodification of journalism an the ever-increasing competitiveness of the media market put a commercial premium on sensationalism an prurience in coverage of politics.
Although journalists like to envision themselves as independent pursuers of truth, the public sees them as employees who are only trying to help corporations make a pound. More than two-thirds say:
News papers are ‘concerned mainly with making profits’ rather than serving the public interest.
‘I believe that newspaper frequently overdramatize some news stories just to sell more papers.’
Journalists chase sensational stories because they think it’ll sell papers, not because it’s an important story.
Journalists sometimes see themselves in heroic terms. Lurking in the back of their minds are phases like ‘eyes and ears of the public,’ ‘ representatives of the citizenry’ and ‘the public’s watchdog.’ By keeping tabs on the politicians, they can ensure that the public will be properly served by the government. The public, however, is convinced that politicians are more ethical than journalists. Many journalists shrug off such findings. Journalists are not supposed to be popular, they say. They’re supposed to be tough observers of government and society.
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Thirdly, lies: ‘publish and be damned’ degenerates to ‘publish and be sued – we can afford it’: The law is a conservative profession. Most legal advisers’ first impulse will be tell news organisation ‘Don’t publish’. The paper is at liberty to ignore the advice: to ‘publish and be damned.’ But because of the complex risks involved, this is not a decision for an individual reporter or sub-editor to make. It needs to be made collectively and at policy level. Many news reporters start their careers with a stint on the court beat. This is considered good training in the need for discipline and accurate fact-gathering in journalism. Many young journalists, however, find the courts intimidating, confusing, and stultifying boring. Often, that’s because they don’t know the ropes. News media nowadays tend to pay for the punishment than actually avoid treading lines. They are more likely to step into the grey area on the ethical issues.
Fourthly, abuse of the public interest defence (especially by some elements of the news media) : Journalists damage their case further when their stories go too far, as they often do. Tabloids have behaved as though the public interest argument stretches indefinitely, that once established it justifies anything. But a legitimate public interest in an aspect of the private behaviour of a public figure cannot automatically justify disclosure of any private information about the individual. Legitimate public interest certainly justified the story that the heir to the Britain throne, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, had had an affair with Mrs Camilla Parker-Bowles after his marriage. Public interest would probably also has justified the story, were it true, that Charles have sex with Camilla at his home while his wife was upstairs. The case was compromised, though by publication of pictures inside the Parker-Bowles home and bedroom against their will. They were not justified by a public interest.
The chairman of the PCC, Lord Wakeham, gave a strong warning to editors early in 1995 against abuse of the public interest defence. He said the Commission would not tolerate spurious use of the defence when considering complaints. Soon afterwards, the PCC severely critised the biggest selling British newspaper, the Sunday tabloid, the News of the World, for coverage of the illness of Lady Spencer, wife of the brother of the Prince of Wales. The paper has shown sad pictures of Lady Spencer, taken evidently without her knowledge, while she was being treated for an eating disorder. No genuine public interest was involved an Lord Wakeham took the unusual step of writing to the owner of the paper, Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation, about it. As a result, Murdoch publicly rubuked the News of the World editors.
Specious and spurious arguments and dubious cases aside, the public interest defence is widely recognized as valid within limits. The committee appointed by government to examine media intrusion and suggested what public interest defences might be used. Journalistic intrusion could be justified if the information collected expose crime, other wrong-doing or a danger to public health. The PCC adds a further consideration: intrusion can be justified if it would prevent ‘the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation’. This could be strengthened further by adopting the public interest defence that already exists in the Obscene Publications Act. An intrusion could be defended if the material gained exposed any matter of serious concern to the general public.
Critics regard generalized exceptions as weasel words designed to allow disreputable journalism to proceed unhindered. But plainly interpreted, a wide-ranging defence of the kind envisaged would offer some protection for public figures, would reduce the risk of commercial villains sheltering behind a privacy law and would not damage protection for ordinary people when they deserve it.
Lastly, ‘Outings’ by media which are couched as serving the public interest.
To conclude , the news media are failing to serve the public interest because of abusing of individual right to privacy, interesting the public rather than serving ‘ the public interest’, lies: ‘publish and be damned’ degenerates to ‘publish and be sued’, abusing of the public interest defence (especially by some elements of the news media) and ‘Outings’ by media which are couched as serving the public interest.
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