December 22, 2006

The Public Interest and the Press

It is fascinating how language can lead to political confusion- its been perfectly clear this week that such a confusion about the murder of the prostitutes in Ipswich has resulted in press coverage might lead to parlous consequences- press coverage that has been justified upon the basis of the public interest, maybe its just worth pondering for a moment what those two words mean- because there are two ways of interpreting those two words and it seems to me that whilst the explanation of the press behaviour rests upon one definition of those two words, the justification of their behaviour rests upon a second interpretation of those words.

Its worth turning in this context to the definition of those words provided within the Press Complaint's Commission Code of Practice

The public interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety.
ii) Protecting public health and safety.
iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. Whenever the public interest is invoked, the PCC will require editors to demonstrate fully how the public interest was served.

4. The PCC will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain, or will become so.

5. In cases involving children under 16, editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interest of the child.

I have quoted this in full to demonstrate some of the problems inherent in the defence. The Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice obviously in using the term public interest, as a way of defining what it is in the public's interest to know. So we have the cases of crime, safety and the much more difficult one of detecting lies (to which I'll move onto later). The Press Complaints' Commission therefore defines the wording in the way that I would say its my interest to have a job and a girlfriend.

There is a second definition of the word interest though and it becomes interestingly clear that the meaning of the words in the law and justifications of the law have become unclear- take this response to a BBC viewer's question by Ian Christie a media lawyer about the Catherine Zeta Jones wedding

Well the law applies equally to everybody, of course, but what it does recognise is that there is a greater interest in the private lives of public figures and that's precisely why cases like the Douglas's case come to court and why they reach such a high public profile.

A greater interest here cannot mean the public interest. There is no public good at stake in Miss Zeta Jones and Mr Douglas's marriage- nothing will collapse and noone will die if one magazine has an exclusive contract for the pictures and another does not. But Mr Christie is using the word interest differently here- whereas in the code quoted above it meant the public good, here it means what the public are interested in. The public interest might be transalated in this context not as the public good but as the public fascination.

I am no lawyer and couldn't speak about the law and whether there is a confusion. But it does seem to me that the justifications for the present arrangements draw upon the difficulties with interpreting that phrase public interest because it can mean two things. The first thing, the public good, is self evidently something in a democracy that we should all know about and be concerned with. The second thing what the public might be interested in, is a different matter. Our fascinations with the private lives of those caught in the spotlight are not defensible ethically in the same way and they can't be defended by recourse to the same kinds of argument. It is a separate and totally different case that we ought to know what we are fascinated by, as opposed to the (in my view quite rational case) that we ought to know that which it is neccessary for us to know for the survival of ourselves, the state and the good of government.

Confusing these two 'public interests' allows the press to pretend that they are arguing for the public good when all they are doing is commercially feeding public fascination. The case can be made in Ipswich for instance that the press feeding public fascination with the suspects is actually attacking the public interest which lies in the guilty party being found and found guilty in a court. Anything that makes that more difficult is a direct attack upon the public interest- and yet the confusions of the language allow editors to argue that it is in the public interest because the public are interested. The language is so slippery here that we possibly need to avoid the term public interest at all- we need to press journalists to define are they talking about a public good or a public fascination. Is the lie they are detecting a lie that we need to know about to understand how to vote or is it just a lie about someone's private life? What kind of public interest are they really talking about?

Perhaps, as a closing thought, the real public interest lies in getting editors to define what they mean and what is going on when they use the phrase 'public interest'!