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Walking a thin line

October 12, 2010

Rupert Murdoch Hacking ScandalLast week I attended an incredibly interesting debate at City University entitled ‘How far should a reporter go?’. The discussion panel focused on the News of the World phone hacking scandal and saw journalists such as Paul McMullan, Nick Davies and Roy Greenslade arguing over whether phone hacking and other illegal measures are necessary and valid when investigating a story that is deemed to be of public interest.

A number of well-voiced opinions and arguments were put forward throughout the debate, however one seemingly unsolvable problem remains unchecked. When questioning whether or not a journalist is working in the interests of the public, surely it is first necessary to define what the public interests are? Nick Davies posed an interesting compromise in order to address the growing concerns over journalists’ illegal activity; he suggested that journalists face a tribunal made up of several independent judges who will decide whether or not the subject of a story is a matter of public interest. Although their verdict would not prevent the story from being pursued and published, the outcome of this tribunal could be used by lawyers in the event that a journalist is prosecuted for using illegal methods of investigation.

On the surface this seems like an ideal proposal, however one has to question how we determine firstly, who will be given the power to decide what falls within the ‘public interest’ boundaries and secondly, what these parameters are. It is evident within all national publications that perceived ‘public interests’ have changed and evolved from what they once were; a story about a celebrity sex scandal is far more like to make it onto the front pages of the most reputable publications than it was a decade ago. Does this mean that the personal lives of every celebrity should be laid bare in newspapers for the entire world to see, simply because the majority of the public believe it to be interesting? Is that really fair and moral? In The Mail on Sunday this week there was an article about former UK asylum seeker, Binyam Mohamed and his legal battle to prevent the Mail from revealing publicly that he has been granted permanent residence in the UK. Mr. Mohamed failed to win a High Court injunction to silence the paper. High Court judge Mr. Justice Cooke said of his decision:

“It is plainly a matter of public interest. The fact is the very identity of this applicant is of importance. The history of the circumstances… all raise questions of public interest against which the decision to grant the applicant indefinite leave to remain has to be seen. I cannot say in the circumstances that the applicant is likely to succeed in preventing publication of that matter.”

The Mail’s lawyers argued that the details surrounding his case were a matter of public interest and that it was therefore only right that the public should be privy to the information. Interestingly enough, it was Mr. Mohamed himself who originally chose to publicise the story behind his quest for asylum when he asked The Mail to publish details about his time spent as a prisoner and apparent torture victim at Guantanamo Bay and various other prisons throughout the world. A headline in the paper yesterday read, ‘Freedom has to work both ways, Mr. Mohamed’ and following it was an article criticising the ever-increasing number of super injunctions that are being granted. The Mail argues that legal red-tape is being used to prevent publications throughout the country from publishing information that should be readily available to the public.

Here in lies the problem – how do we distinguish between what the public NEEDS to know and what the public WANTS to know? I think there must be a distinction somewhere between the two. Don’t mistake me, if there was a story of national importance at stake, I probably wouldn’t rule out using information which I knew had been gained through illegal methods. However, I personally feel that I have enough moral fibre to know when a story is truly a matter of public interest. Although I am sure there are some (or perhaps many) who would disagree.

It would seem, then, that there is no finite solution to this problem. Perhaps we, as journalists must rely on our own moral compasses to guide our decisions and suffer the consequences of our choices, whether they be good or bad. Paul McMullan said at the City debate: “A good paper judges the mood of the public. The moral judgement of the people will decide the fate of said papers.” I don’t know whether I believe this to be a valid excuse for some of the stories that Mr. McMullan and the News of the World have published, however, for the time being it would appear as though newspapers will continue to be guided by the wants of the public and their desire for the next big scandal.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2010 10:16 pm

    Firstly Mr Mohamad only has himself to blame. I think you’re right that until there is a finite resolution to the situation, journalists must follow their instincts and appease to the tastes of their market readers. I do believe however that a paper certianly has the power to ‘Agenda set’ and doesn’t need to be forced to write scandal just because our society has an increased interest in gossip/celebrity and scandal. Great blog- keep up the good work Chizzle

  2. Hilary Wingfield permalink
    October 13, 2010 12:16 pm

    Great item that really tackles a critical issue. I personally have absolutely no interest in what or who David Bekham is up to, but I want and believe I should know about the granting of permanent residence to an ex detainee of Guan­tanamo Bay.

    Good on the Daily Mail for fighting their corner and getting this published and what an indictment of other media that this has not been higher profile news.

    May your own moral compass guide you well.

  3. Cait permalink
    October 15, 2010 1:49 pm

    The suggestion by Nick Davies of adopting some kind of ‘public interest test’ tribunal is interesting. While the level of sex-scandal and celebrity coverage in the press today is extreme to the point of being almost completely passé, what Davies proposes could prove extremely dangerous. Do people want a homogenous press, with newspapers being influenced towards a safe middle ground as dictated by members of the judiciary?
    It’s obviously just a hypothetical, but it suggests a scary inclination to take questions of ethics out of the hands of the individual, surely never a desirable thing.

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