How should we define “in the public interest”?

The “public interest” is a phrase that has been deployed regularly at the Leveson inquiry, both in attack and defence. The meaning has rather lost shape in that it has become a get-out-of-jail-free card in whichever direction it is facing.

In the context of journalism “public interest” is a possible justification for the use of subterfuge or covert activities, for example, that would otherwise be an intrusion of privacy if not actually against the law. The journalist is faced with a number of ethical questions: does the intended end justify the means? Is it right or wrong to do this?

The Press Complaints Commission code defines the public interest as including but not confined to detecting and exposing crime, or serious impropriety; protecting public health and safety and preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

There is also public interest in freedom of expression in itself.

I asked Guardian readers and editorial colleagues what they think it means, and whether it should be strengthened or extended. As I write, 16 colleagues and 150 readers had either emailed or commented on the open thread.

There were those who distrusted the very concept itself. Bopstar wrote: “It doesn’t mean anything … The public isn’t a cohesive group with a single point of view. Therefore nothing can be truly done in the ‘national interest’. Something can be done in the interest of truth, fairness, openness, profit, an editor, a politician etc, but not ‘in the national interest’.”

That, however, was not the consensus. The overwhelming majority could see the purpose of a public-interest test against which journalistic behaviour may, and should, be measured.

Both inside and outside the Guardian there is a widespread recognition “that ‘in the public interest’ should by no means be synonymous with ‘whatever interests the public’, which is how most newspapers have chosen to interpret it”. People’s private lives, especially their sex lives, tended to be viewed in the category of that which interests the public. Only a few thought that such exposure can be condoned with a public-interest argument.

Martin Wainwright, the Guardian’s northern editor, said: “I’d say public interest means the fundamental health of a free society, and that it is always served by the truth and damaged by the failure to tell it. That includes telling the truth about individuals whose privacy is inevitably and rightly reduced if they become of interest to the public because of celebrity, public service, crime, etc.”

Valten78 posted: “It’s a difficult balancing act … For example, it may be hard to argue that vacuous ‘who’s shagging whom’ stories could be thought of as being in the public interest (as opposed to being of interest to the public). If we are talking about footballers it’s really just tittle tattle, if however we are talking about a politician who is campaigning on a ‘family values’ platform, then it’s a perfectly legitimate story.”

I think the PCC definition is a good one but I agree with David Leigh, the Guardian’s chief investigations editor, who suggests that a useful addition to the code would be: “Information is in the public interest if it assists in the proper functioning of a democracy.”

This is an idea reflected in the BBC’s editorial guidelines, which state the public interest includes, “… disclosing information that assists people to better comprehend or make decisions on matters of public importance”.

Beyond that addition, it would be a mistake to attempt to nail down one definition.

Andrew Sparrow, the Guardian’s award-winning blogger, deserves the final word: “I’m wary about attempts to define it or to pin it down, partly because I think this could end up being restrictive, but mainly because our view of what the public interest entails changes quite dramatically over time and I think, as journalists, we should be willing to fight the public-interest battle on a case-by-case basis. For example, 50 years ago it was assumed that there was a public interest in knowing that an MP was gay, but little or no public interest in whether he drove home drunk, hit his wife or furnished his house using wood from non-sustainable sources. Now, obviously, it’s the other way round. Society does – and should – constantly redefine what the public interest entails and journalism should be part of that.”

This column was originally published in The Guardian on May 20, 2012.

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