As Lord Justice Leveson prepares to investigate newspaper conduct, I joined three other writers to discuss ‘How far can the press go in the public interest?’
The press will die if it fails in its duty to serve the public interest
The Times, 27 September 2011
The ethics of what should or shouldn’t be published can be distilled down to a simple rule: is it in the public interest? Put simply, the public interest is not the tittle-tattle that interests the public but anything that informs and enlightens society.
The pursuit of this high-minded ideal is not exclusive to reporters: a lot of academic and scientific research fits that bill. But journalism is different because as a rough trade it deals with the ugly realities of human nature: sex, scandal, crime, corruption – all the emotional vagaries that make up the “crooked timber of humanity”. It’s not about peddling pretty pictures; that’s public relations or propaganda. Because of those ugly realities journalists have to use subterfuge or deception to dig out the truth. Where activity is not in the public interest and criminal then let it be prosecuted, but we should be wary of prosecuting speech or regulating the press.
First, it is impractical to introduce national regulations on the press as information now flows globally. What people can’t read in the newspaper they will get from Twitter, which, as a US company, is governed by the more tolerant First Amendment.
Second, we should note that the greatest abuses in history were never a result of too much speech but rather too little. It is only through free speech that we have any hope of tackling the real enemy of the people: the concentration of power.
Where speech is false, then the best way to tackle it is with more, not less, speech. Jemima Khan showed this when she put paid to rumours that she had sought a superinjunction not by bringing a court case against Twitter, but by tweeting the truth herself. Public figures may be more accountable in the internet age but they equally have more opportunity to get out their side of the story.
Journalists, too, have come under more scrutiny than ever before, thanks to the internet.
Rather than a race to the bottom, this explosion of speech creates a renewed need for public interest journalism. In the age of information overload, when everyone can tweet or blog, how can we know what is important or true? We look to reputation.
Journalists are, or ought to be, the public’s hired guns sent out to collect information, question it, verify it and distilit to what is important and true. This takes time and skill, and is the only thing a journalist does that marks him or her out as a professional. It’s also the reason why anyone would choose a well-known newspaper’s website over an unknown blog.
The survival of journalism in the digital age rests on its one unique selling point: serving this public interest. Fail or forget to do that, and it has no future.