Article: Journalism’s unique selling point is the public interest

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.

3 Responses to “Article: Journalism’s unique selling point is the public interest”

  1. alex says:

    Hi Heather,

    I thought you might be interested to read the following email, which details about the Met deal with FOIs from journalists:

    From:
    Davies Merilyne – DoI
    Sent:
    06 June 2008 17:11
    To:
    MPS – Information Managers
    Cc:
    Duncan Andrea – DoI; Pallen Sarah E – DoI; Shankster Nigel J – DoI; Simmons Kevin –
    DoI; Aldridge Shannon – DoI
    Subject:
    High Risk FoI Cases
    Importance:
    High

    Dear Colleagues,

    This email serves as a reminder to be alert to the issue of identifying High Risk FOIA
    requests.

    You will notice that when allocated a Freedom of Information Act request to deal with by
    the Public Access Office, the log will contain the following phrase:-

    You MUST obtain approval from DPA / Press Liaison and / MPS ACPO portfolio
    lead before release if this request is from a journalist or identified as high
    risk.

    The management of FOIA and the potential release of information into the public domain
    has to be consistent, corporate and within the legislative requirements of
    FOIA. It is therefore vitally important to the MPS that those requests having the potential
    to cause significant harm are identified at the earliest opportunity. Again,
    ACPO guidance summarises HARM as follows:-

    The undesired consequence of the disclosure of information which will or could lead to
    the physical or mental harm to an individual, damage to property, loss of confidence or a
    reduction in the effective provision of public service delivery, temporary or permanent.

    With this in mind, the Public Access Office are categorising the following types of
    request as HIGH RISK and would wish to be notified at the earliest opportunity of any
    change to the status of a request from either normal > high risk or vice versa.

    This High Risk assessment is over and above the normal Central Referral Criteria that
    exists already and is purely for MPS purposes.

    HIGH RISK

    Covert Human Intelligence Source / Informant information
    Registered Sex Offender or MAPPA related information
    Information impacting on MPS Counter Terrorism Command
    Surveillance Information
    Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) information

    Witness Protection Programmes
    Any data falling with the realm of Section 23 or 24 Freedom Of Information.
    (Security Bodies and or National Security Issues)
    Any information relating to or requests from VIP’s (MP’s etc) and or Royal
    Household
    Covert or MPS secure IT systems

    Procurement / high value contract information
    Any unpublished MPS procedures
    Any statistical information either Crime or HR, especially when from an identified
    media source

    Requests for Third Party Information in the hands of the MPS, ie: from the Home
    Office, MPA, GLA, IPCC etc.
    High Profile Investigations, ie; Stockwell, Cash for Honours etc.
    Misconduct, Employment Tribunal or Civil Action Information

    Any request involving an identified member of the Media.

    The process is not intended to hinder or delay the release of information but to
    ensure that we release consistent information and are properly prepared for any
    potential consequences of the release.

    Merilyne Davies
    Head of Public Access Office
    Data Protection Officer and Freedom of Information Lead

  2. Alex Hutchinson says:

    Re the post by Alex on 8 October –
    The guidance outlined in the email seems too wide ranging and disproportionate and does not allow for FOIA requests to be individually assessed. In fact the email provides no guidance at all on how to assess and individual FOIA request.
    Why is the MPS taking advice from ACPO, a private limited company.
    Perhaps Alex could enlighten us on these points.
    Where did Alex obtain the email?

  3. Tony Shenton says:

    Dear Heather,

    Someone was kind enough to buy me ‘The Revolution Will Be Digitised’ for Christmas. Your comments about the importance of professional journalism in democratic societies remind me of the following Dalai Lama quote:

    “When I talk to people of various professional backgrounds, particularly from the West, they seem to have a tremendous amount of attachment to their own profession. One could say that many people have an enormous personal investment in their profession, they identify with it, so much so that they feel as if their profession is so vital for the world’s well-being that if it were to degenerate the whole world would suffer. This suggests to me that their level of attachment is inappropriate”(HH Dalai Lama, ‘Transforming the Mind’, 2000: 64-65).

    You write:

    “A statement isn’t a fact. Even when the person making the statement is an authority he or she still needs to provide evidence or proof that what they say is the truth and a professional journalist should be asking for this proof and supplying it for public scrutiny”(‘The Revolution Will Be Digitised’, 2011: 72).

    I agree but sadly, as the media scholar Robert McChesney explains, this rarely happens because

    “Journalists who question agreed-upon assumptions by the political elite stigmatize themselves as unprofessional and political. Most major U.S. wars over the past century have been sold to the public on dubious claims if not outright lies, yet professional journalism has failed to warn the public” (Robert McChesney, ‘The Problems of the Media’, 2004: 74).

    You add:

    “All this accumulating of statements, data and information which then has to be verified takes time. But this is the only thing a journalist does that marks him out as professional. It’s the only reason anyone would choose a well-known newspaper’s website over an unknown blog. The newspaper as a brand has built up, over time, a reputation for challenging the powerful and giving people meaningful, true information.

    “The press is not like any other business and what it sells shouldn’t just be rehashed press releases or celebrity gossip, but the civic information necessary for people to understand their society and participate in it. It is a check on political and financial power, or at least it should be”(‘The Revolution Will Be Digitised’, 2011: 73).

    In reality, the press is exactly like every other business because it’s raison d’être is not to inform the public, but to make a profit. In their excellent book ‘Guardians of Power’ (2006) David Cromwell and David Edwards ask:

    “Can a corporate media system be expected to tell the truth about a world dominated by corporations? Can newspapers, including the “liberal” Guardian and New York Times tell the truth about catastrophic climate change – about its roots in mass consumerism and corporate obstructionism – when they are themselves profit-orientated businesses dependent on advertisers for more than half of their revenue?”

    Why did you choose not to explore these questions?

    I look forward to your reply.
    Tony

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