In pursuit of public interest – a step too far?

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You cannot fail to have noticed the phone hacking saga which has dominated the news agenda in all papers, with the possible exception of last week’s London riots.

Consulting our trusty friend Google, I happened upon the BBC College of Journalism website, where I pondered the ethical values promoted – truth and accuracy; impartiality; independence; public interest; accountability. So, are the not so innocent guilty of breaching these values?

To what extent did the ends achieved by their publication of the hot topic stories justify the means used to source their information?

To this end, we need to reflect on the distinction between the legitimate public interest and what is of interest to the public. Because this is at the crux of how News of the World journalists appear to have justified the means used to gather stories in their own minds, if not in the eyes of us, Joe Public.

The prolific sales of News of the World and its tag line of ‘the world’s greatest newspaper’ suggest that we as the public did have an interest in John Leslie snorting cocaine in his living room, the soap opera-esque relationship of Jude Law and Sienna Miller, Wayne Rooney’s use of prostitutes whilst his wife was pregnant and Sarah Ferguson shamelessly selling access to her former husband, the Duke of York, in a carefully orchestrated meeting with the ‘Fake Sheik’.

These, however, are arguably less in the public interest than the example given by the BBC of a legitimate public interest topic – financial services and risk management within the sector during the period of boom we experienced before the world came crashing down in 2008.

With our 2011 eyes, the topic seems all the more interesting and we can clearly identify the public interest justification for reporting on economic, political and social grounds. But the issue faced by journalists at the time was that it didn’t sell papers – the public is far more interested in reading about the topics detailed above than most public interest offerings journalists should be reporting on.

So the key question is, is it in the public interest to feed the public desire for salacious gossip and invasion into the private lives of celebrities? This is a question we saw not so long ago, with Ryan Giggs’ not so subtle attempts to gag his lover from selling her story to, ironically, the News of the World’s sister paper, The Sun.

The High Court determined that his right to privacy superseded the public interest argument put forward by The Sun. John Hemming MP decided otherwise, favouring use of parliamentary privilege to breach the gagging order and satisfy the interest of the public to know which footballer was at the centre of the moral and, arguably, private scandal.

We were fine with this at the time – celebrities are role models in the public eye, and therefore the public has the right to know what they get up to. But the revelations that Millie Dowler’s phone had been hacked, as had numerous other members of Joe Public who didn’t live their lives in the public eye or benefit from the interest of the public in day to day affairs, left a bitter taste in our mouths and really crystallised the public interest issue in our minds.

News International management have been hauled in front of a Parliamentary Select Committee to explain themselves and their involvement in the phone-hacking allegations. Would John Hemming MP been minded to have taken the approach he determined appropriate a few weeks ago, had there been any suggestion that Ryan Giggs’ phone had been hacked? We will never know.

The endemic nature of this scandal and its repercussions throughout the legal, and political world has given us all the opportunity to have a long hard think about the public interest, with the overwhelming majority feeling that the public interest has been flagrantly disregarded despite being the overwhelming justification for the actions taken at the time.

Our only hope lies with ‘accountability’, which is currently being tested through both legal and political inquiries. Given the legitimate public interest in this scandal, we can hope that adherence to the ethical principles detailed above by journalists going forward, will result in a return to public interest reporting, and a shift away from feeding the public need for gossip at all costs.

Tania Hayes is AAT's Head of Professional Standards & Strategy.

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