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Journalists need a workable definition of 'the public interest'

Phil Harding

is a journalist, broadcaster and media consultant, and a former controller of Editorial Policy at the BBC

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What exactly is journalism in the public interest? It's the most important question in journalism today. It's a question which lies at the heart of the Leveson Inquiry. It's a question which is hotly disputed, and to which there seem to be few easy answers. Yet, unless it can be answered convincingly, it is a question which threatens to destroy independent journalism in this country.

As Robert Jay, QC counsel to the Inquiry, outlined in his opening submission, many critics of the press believe that editors use the idea of the public interest to excuse the inexcusable:

"Put simply, the 'public interest' is very often deployed as some form of trump card, and it is too loosely defined. It ends up with the press delving into the affairs of those who are celebrities, and those who are not, in a way which unethically penetrates a domain which ought to remain private."

For a phrase that is so central to the debate, for one that is so often and widely used by the media as a justification for their purpose and their methods, the public interest is infuriatingly difficult to define with any precision. 

It is maybe easier to start with what the public interest is not:

- The public interest is not the same as what the public are interested in; though of course you always hope that with enough imagination and creativity you can persuade the public to be interested in your newspaper or your report or programme. But there will be a lot of things that the public will be interested in that are not what we would call in the public interest. The public interest does not mean just satisfying the curiosity of the public.

- Nor can the public interest be justified as some kind of moral check on an individual's scandalous behaviour - something that has been suggested in the past by Paul Dacre.

- The last thing that the public interest is not is that it is not the same as the national interest or the interests of the state or the government or of any ruling elite. An independent media does not exist to further the interests of any party or political grouping. Politicians will often choose to blur this distinction and argue that, at times, the media are there to further their interests. And they will be wrong. Distinguishing between the public interest and the interests of the state is crucial for a democracy. It is an important part of the job of the media to call to account governments and those in power. (And of course when they do so is usually when the rows start!)

The BBC's Editorial Guidelines make a good stab at defining some of the sorts of journalism that would be in the public interest. They would include: exposing or detecting crime; exposing significantly anti-social behaviour; exposing corruption or injustice; disclosing significant incompetence or negligence; protecting people's health and safety; preventing people from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation; and, finally, disclosing information that assists people to better comprehend or make decisions on matters of public importance.

The only problem with this approach (and other regulatory codes adopt similar wording) is that it only gives examples and doesn't start with a definition or a set of principles. It is helpful in clear-cut cases, less so in marginal ones, and even less so in the tangled present-day world of celebrity journalism.   

So, while many in journalism have used the public interest to justify pretty much anything, those who, for a variety of motives, wish to see the media muzzled have argued for a very narrow definition.

It is time for those who care about the future of good journalism and its proper role in a civic society to take the lead. We need a much more developed definition of what journalism in the public interest actually means. It must provide an overarching rationale as well as being of practical use. While such a definition can never legislate for every circumstance, it must be sufficiently clear what is meant to be in and out of scope.

If we don't, the substantial risk is that others will do it for us, and they could be people who know little and care even less about the future of journalism and its proper role in a democracy.  

Phil Harding is a journalist, broadcaster and media consultant, and a former controller of Editorial Policy at the BBC. This article is based on a chapter in The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair; to be published by Arima in February 2012. 

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