Debating “Privacy, Probity and the Public Interest”

29 03 2010

We have previously drawn our readers’ attention to the important report produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism:  “Privacy, Probity and the Public Interest” by Stephen Whittle and Glenda Cooper.  We summarise the Report’s conclusions in our previous post and we will not repeat them her.  The Report was published on 13 July 2009 but over the past 8 months has attracted almost no media attention or comment.  This is unfortunate.

The Report is a serious piece of work by a former director of BBC editorial policy and a journalist who, over a period of a year, interviewed lawyers, academics, journalists, bloggers and those who have found their privacy invaded by the media.

The report found “huge public concern” about privacy and media intrusion and proposed a robust definition of the public interest – which is already implicit in codes, statements and legislation.  In a Press Release accompanying the launch of the Report the authors suggested that public interest had the following characteristics:

*   Citizens in a democracy have an interest in having access to information about the workings of government, its institutions and its officials, both elected and appointed. This interest also extends to private corporations and to voluntary organisations which require the public’s trust.
*   Individuals holding such office in a public or private institution which seeks the public’s trust should be judged for their public acts, not private ones. ‘Private’ should mean issues to do with personal relations, personal communications, beliefs and past affiliations – always assuming these are within the law – however much these appear to others to be deviant, or immoral, or bizarre.

The Report suggests recommends that media intrusion in support of the ‘public interest’ should be able to demonstrate one of the following:

“the exposure of fraud, corruption, crime or significant anti-social behaviour; the promotion of accountability and transparency for decisions and public spending; the support of probity and value for money; debate on key issues; the disclosure of information that allows people to make significantly more informed decisions about matters of public importance; or the exposure of incompetence that affects the public”.

In his recent City University Lecture Mr Justice Eady referred to the Report’s finding that “There is no evidence of the courts exercising a ‘chilling’ effect on responsible journalism in the public interest” (Report, p.62) and mentioned with characteristic understatement that the report “has not received much coverage in the press“.

The only mainstream press coverage we have found is in the Guardian – which published an article by the authors on the date of the launch of the Report.  In this article, they linked their findings to the “News of the World” phone hacking story.  The Report was also mentioned in the Press Gazette.   It was briefly mentioned on the MediaPaL@LSE blog. More recently, the Report is discussed in piece on the “European Journalism Observatory” website entitled “What is public interest?“.

In an interview in Leader World, joint author Stephen Whittle said

“I fundamentally believe everyone has a basic right to privacy. With my research I wanted to stimulate a debate and for people to accept that we are not proposing a limitation of the freedom of press but just greater responsibility in the public interest.”

We agree with those sentiments.  It is unfortunate that the Report has not been widely read and discussed.  We hope to organise an INFORRM seminar on this topic later in the year.

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25 04 2011
“Privacy Madness: rational debate disappears in a tide of self interest and obsession with sex” – Mark Thomson « Inforrm's Blog

[…] year’s Reuter’s Institute Report on “Privacy, Probity and Public Interest” (almost entirely ignored by the media) showed that most people still regard sex and sexuality as essentially […]

2 05 2011
Privacy madness – rational debate disappears in tide of self « LegalTreeHouse

[…] that last year’s Reuter’s Institute Report on Privacy, Probity and Public Interest (almost entirely ignored by the media) showed that most people still regard sex and sexuality as essentially […]

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

[…] 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 […]

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