“Privacy Probity and the public interest” – Reuters Institute Report

9 02 2010

The media coverage of the John Terry affair has reminded us of an important report produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.  The report is by Stephen Whittle and Glenda Cooper and is entitled “Privacy, Probity and the Public Interest”.

The authors have interviewed lawyers, academics, journalists, bloggers and those who have found their privacy invaded by the media. 

Their findings include the following:

  • Most people still regard the following as essentially private: sex and sexuality; health; family life; personal correspondence and finance (except where public monies are concerned).
  • Restrictions on resources (newspapers and broadcasters under financial restraints), time (the increasing speed of the news cycle) and perceived public indifference were all seen as more significant obstacles to  investigative journalism than concerns over privacy.
  • It is hard to see evidence of the courts creating a ‘chilling effect’ on responsible journalism exercised in the public interest
  • Invasions of privacy ‘in the public interest’ are justified by some journalists (primarily the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre) as a moral venture. Journalists frequently cite hypocrisy on the part of a public figure or their status as a ‘role model’ in order to validate such invasions. The authors argue that it is hard to prove a connection between private behaviour and public actions.
  • Any approach which recognises that private space is to be protected in principle will run the risk of missing concealed scandals which bear on public life.  But to argue from this that therefore all potentially compromising private relationships must therefore be investigated is not a reasonable posture. There is a greater public interest in the protection of private life: and that interest must tolerate the occasional missed misdemeanour.
  • In practical terms, media investigations have to be proportionate to what is being investigated and clearly targeted. That implies:

-       a clear sense of what the public interest justification might be;

-       the possession of some justifying evidence to take an investigation forward;

-       the minimum amount of deception to achieve it;

-       very clear rules about when secret recording takes place;

-       a clear set of authorisations from within the editorial line management chain;

-       a robust rationale for what is eventually put into the public domain and how.

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5 responses

26 02 2010
Opinion: “Privacy – the way ahead? Part 3 – Options for the Future” « Inforrm's Blog

[...] I made these observations in a lecture in 2009.  Paul Dacre quoted them  in his “Society of Editors” lecture and said that they “should chill us all”.  Chilling or not, they are I believe accurate.   Furthermore, such developments are not out of line with the views of the majority of the public which approves of clear rules being imposed on the media in relation to the publication of private information (see the recent Reuters Report, “Privacy Probity and the Public Interest”, discussed by us here). [...]

12 05 2011
Defenders of self-regulation: Rusbridger v. Dacre & Black | Fullrunner

[...] reports, Mr Dacre’s position is fairly antique. It seems to jar badly, for example, with the views of a majority of Britons, who believe that information about anyone’s sexuality, health, family life, personal [...]

7 06 2011
Public Opinion and Privacy Injunctions: “do you agree that the media should not be gagged by super-injunctions?” « Inforrm's Blog

[...] these issues.  In 2009 a Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (discussed in our post here) suggested that most people continued to believe that sex and sexuality were essentially private.  [...]

7 10 2011
Opinion: Media Regulation – Options or a New Settlement? – Stephen Whittle « Inforrm's Blog

[...] published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2009 (and discussed by in posts us here and here) Share this:PrintEmailTwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

21 10 2012
Are the judges in tune with the public’s view of the public interest? « Inforrm's Blog

[...] First, there work down by Stephen Whittle and Glenda Cooper on behalf of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, set out in their report, Privacy, Probity and the Public Interest.  After a wide ranging series of interviews, the authors concluded that most people still regard the following as essentially private: sex and sexuality; health; family life; personal correspondence and finance (except where public monies are concerned).  In response to the argument that a person is a  ‘role model’ the authors argue that it is hard to prove a connection between private behaviour and public actions (see our February 2010 post). [...]

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