Campaigners for press reform want the ‘public interest’ to be clearly defined in law, so that judges can protect ethical journalists who act in it, and punish unethical journalists who only pretend to do so. Good luck with that. Any attempt to give a clear legal definition of the public interest that could cover all eventualities might provide a lot of well-paid work for lawyers and parliamentary drafters. It seems unlikely to do anybody else much good.
In practice, the notion of the public interest in journalism turns out to be less of a universal value than a cover for pursuing a particular agenda, depicting what are really matters of taste, prejudice and personal interest as if they were unquestionable truths descended from an ethical cloud.
Thus the chief investigative reporter on the Guardian admitted to the Leveson Inquiry that he, too, had hacked phones in pursuit of a story. But unlike the evil News of the World, he had done so in pursuit of the public interest – that being, of course, the public interest as defined by the editors of the Guardian. Similarly, that newspaper’s editor has previously insisted that his publication of Wikileaks’ revelations of high-end gossip was entirely different from the tabloids’ scurrilous phone-hacking stories, because he had acted in the public interest.
So, it was not in the public interest for the NotW to report Prince Harry’s embarrassing conversation with his girlfriend about a trip to a strip club, but it was in the public interest for the Guardian to reveal that Prince Andrew spoke ‘cockily’ and embarrassingly at a private function in America? (The prince apparently raged about ‘fucking journalists’ from the Guardian, which I suppose may be the definition of infringing the public interest in some eyes.) And how did the editor know which stories to publish? Because senior Guardian staff had been through the Wikileaks files, using their ‘great knowledge’, and decided in their wisdom which ones were in the public interest. That’s all right then.
One thing for certain amid all this confusion and posturing is that it will not be left to the public to decide what is in the public interest. But then, what did the concept of the ‘public interest’ ever have to do with them? Even when it was first coined in the eighteenth century, the ‘public interest’ was conceived by political elites as a device for keeping the passions and opinions of the actual breathing public in check. That idea of an officially endorsed ‘public interest’, standing above and separate from the great public unwashed below, has been developed over the past 200 years to help control what information and influence the public should be allowed to access down here on Earth.
The point is always being made that the ‘public interest’ is not the same thing as what interests the public. This mantra has been repeated so often that it is rarely questioned anymore. Yet what does it mean? Such an uber-patronising approach suggests that the public cannot really appreciate what is in its own best interests; that the mass of people simply do not know what might be good for them to know about. Instead, an enlightened clique of judges and experts must be left to define the public interest on the public’s behalf, and thus limit public exposure to ideas and information that do not fit their bill. It’s for our own good, whether we know or like it or not!
This prejudice is embodied by the pro-regulation Hacked Off lobby, which is always banging on about the public. But what might it mean? ‘Well’, says Hacked Off’s Professor Brian Cathcart, ‘to start with it is obviously not the same thing as what interests the public…. That would legitimise all kinds of gratuitous cruelty and dishonesty, reviving the morality that permitted bear-baiting and public executions.’ So you cannot let the ‘cruel’ public see and hear whatever they are interested in, or they will all be demanding blood in the streets. Since the public apparently does not know what is good for it, defining the ‘public interest’ must therefore be monopolised by experts, judges - and journalism professors, all founding members of the ‘We believe in press freedom, but…’ club. The public interest, far from being a general ethical standard, is another device used by interest groups to pursue their own self-serving agenda in relation to the media.
Time to question the very language used in this discussion, to reject any notion that there is a ‘public interest’ separate from the public, which can be defined by a committee or a court sitting on an ethereal, ethical cloud. In the end, the question of what suits the public’s interests can only be decided in the specific context of events. More importantly, it can ultimately only be decided by the public.
In a free society, the public must be allowed to decide for itself what interests it, and what it deems to be in its interest to know. And it can only do that when it is in a position to debate and decide matters, after everything has been laid before it. The freedom of the press to publish cannot be dependent on a concept of public interest pre-defined in regulations or the law. On the contrary, we can only decide after publication, when all sides of the argument are out in the open and competing for attention. At which point we should all be free to endorse, argue against, embrace, ignore, boycott or shout ‘bullshit!’ at what is published, as we see fit. But not to go running to regulators or the courts to punish those we might disapprove of ‘in the public interest’.
For those of us who believe in a free press with no ‘buts’, the cloak of the ‘public interest’ is a contender for public enemy number one. Like patriotism before it, the public interest today often looks like the last refuge of an allegedly liberal scoundrel.
Finally, a cautionary tale for anybody who thinks that appealing to the authorities in the name of ‘the public interest’ can protect press freedom. In the government’s official response to the Guardian lobby’s outrage over the detention of David Miranda, the deputy national security adviser declared that the state’s actions had not been motivated merely by the concerns of the security services, but by the ‘overriding public interest’ of protecting its citizens. Those who live by the public interest can perish by it, too.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever, is published by Societas. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.