Public interest vs. What the public finds interesting

NewsBy Jonathan Roberts / @robertsjonathan

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights sets out, in very clear terms, the right of an individual to a private family life, home and correspondence.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human right sets out, in equally clear terms, the right of freedom of expression.

How the two marry up has been a complex issue for some of our brightest lawyers, and that complexity has – in part- resulted in endless debates about the use of court injunctions.

As far as the papers are concerned, they walk this tightrope by defining, often self-defining, what stories are in the public interest. But there’s a difference between what the public has a right to know, and what some elements of the public want to know. In essence, it is the difference between what is in the public interest, and what the public finds ‘interesting’.

My test for what is in the public interest is two fold.

1) Is the integrity of our society and democracy defended by the release of this information?

2) Is the integrity of our society and democracy improved by the release of this information?

If a story meets either of these criteria, for me, its release is justified.

Investigative journalists have, on many occasions, done an outstanding job in exposing corruption, lies and scandal amongst those who make the decisions that affect our lives. The exposure of the expenses scandal was in the public interest as fraudulent claims were damaging the integrity of our democratic system. We had a right to know.

Indeed, if an MP who creates our laws commits adultery or another morally questionable offence, then it is in the public interest to report the story for the same reason. The said MP has effectively signed a contract with the public to be held to a high moral standard.

There are other stories however which feature more prominently in the day-to-day output of the tabloids. Categorised as “Famous person X has sex with wannabe famous person Y. Wannabe person Y sells story to tabloid for a substantial fee”. These stories can be interesting to many people, but our society is rarely defended or improved by hearing the story. We may find these stories interesting, but the people in question have signed no contract with the public and they, therefore, have the right to keep their sex life private. As do you or I.

Indeed, such is the popularity of the sex-scandal formula – and when I say popularity, I mean it makes Rupert Murdoch money – there is a constant search amongst the tabloids for the next scandal. They will stop at nothing, and the creeping immorality of the chase leads to some tabloid journalists feeling it is appropriate and right to tap into the mobile phones of celebrities.

When those involved in the chase are given scrutiny, they hide behind the sanctity of the ‘freedom of press’. Freedom is a right, but with rights come responsibilities. The question is whether the tabloid media live up to their responsibilities to the society that allows them to exist. In my view, the answer to this question is a resounding no.

If you take the example of the heinous murder of Joanna Yates earlier this year. A slightly eccentric appearing landlord was originally questioned, and the tabloids smelled an opportunity. They went for him ferociously, attempting to try him by media, not by the rule of law. No apology, hidden away on the inside pages, or even financial compensation, can make up for the damage done to his reputation. He will always be looked upon with suspicion amongst his community and the good name he worked his whole life to make was robbed in a matter of hours. The tabloids chewed him up and spat him out, not in the public interest, but because of profit. This wasn’t the ‘freedom of the press’ being used responsibly. This was profiteering disguised as a kangaroo court.

So we come to the real question. People complain, understandably, that using the courts to defend your privacy, reputation and character is a preserve of the rich, famous and powerful. This is not an argument to ban injunctions, it is an argument to make our legal system cheaper, and justice more accessible to all.

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