A few days ago Paul McMullan, former deputy features editor on the News of the World, popped up on a Sunday morning debate programme with his oft-repeated lament that, in the wake of the “chilling effect” of Leveson and its aftermath, he was forced to sell his surveillance van. The clear implication was that trough-swilling politicians, corrupt businessmen and bent coppers would all be celebrating this curtailment of his courageous battle to expose their surreptitious evil.
I have to confess to a little punch of the air. Not because I want the mad, bad and corrupt to be left undisturbed – more of them later – but because I have little doubt that this much-mourned surveillance van had spent much of its working life parked outside the homes or hunting grounds of celebrity families, the bereaved, or those many other unfortunate and innocent victims of extraordinary events who find themselves at the centre of a media firestorm.
To be fair to McMullan, he has never concealed his own contempt for the principle enshrined in Article 8 of the Human Rights Act that people have a right to their private lives. He famously told the Leveson Inquiry that “Privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things in,” and “Privacy is for paedos”.
This philosophy came to mind again over the weekend when it emerged that shadow equalities minister, Gloria De Piero, had asked the press to “call off the hunt” for topless pictures of her aged 15. Having told The Times in an interview last week that she had posed for them to earn some money when she was a skint teenager, she learned that a news agency - apparently acting on behalf of a national newspaper – had offered thousands of pounds to acquire them.
Let’s put aside questions about whether publication would break the law or the Code of Conduct devised by the now-discredited Press Complaints Commission. How on earth could any newspaper justify such a gross intrusion into someone’s earlier life?
What is the public interest?
This is the heart of debates around Leveson and subsequent efforts to find some kind of regulatory framework which safeguards press freedom while also protecting people from abuse of basic journalistic standards. How do you define the public interest?
At one end of the scale is the public interest philosophy originally advanced in the United States by Mark Fowler, appointed by President Reagan in 1981 as chairman of the very powerful Federal Communications Commissions: “the public’s interest defines the public interest”. While he might be horrified to find his philosophy applied to publication of a 15-year-old girl’s naked breasts, that is the only conceivable rationale for the news agency’s picture hunt. The market dictates what intrusions are permissible.
At the other end of the scale is what much of our national press would have us believe is the inevitable end result of current (modest) proposals for independent self-regulation: a world in which watchdog journalism is neutered and the rich and powerful can sleep easy in their beds. This frankly absurd caricature is being offered as a serious critique of a framework which is actually designed to promote genuinely public interest journalism while preventing victimisation or harassment.
So how to define “public interest journalism”? In fact, there is a pretty well established set of industry rules, which can be found not just in BBC and Ofcom editorial codes but even in the PCC’s. Exposure of wrongdoing, injustice or incompetence among private or public officials in positions of responsibility; protecting the public from potential danger; preventing the public from being misled by public figures attempting to create a false image of themselves; and revealing information with a clear democratic purpose. All of these appear in various guises under the “public interest” umbrella.
Is the public interested?
This coincides neatly with the public’s view, which is rather more sophisticated (and rather less prurient) than the McMullans of this world would have us believe. Opinion research which I carried out last year for the British Journalism Review tested public attitudes to the publication of stories involving different types of “revelation” from food contamination in a supermarket to a pop star’s cosmetic surgery. The research posed eight possible story lines, asking in each case whether or not newspapers should publish the story. Results showed that the British public have little appetite for the publication of stories which they see as belonging to the private realm.
A full report can be found in the original BJR article, but perhaps the most remarkable finding was a story involving “a well-known England footballer, who is married with young children … having an affair”. Nearly six in ten thought this story should not be published, compared to just over a third who thought the story was not in the public interest “but nevertheless should be published”; and just 6% who said it was “definitely in the public interest” to publish.
Of course, there is something of a gap between professed attitudes in a survey and the newspaper reading public – but not as much as the privacy-busters would have us believe. Tabloid newspaper circulation is in decline and, according to data just published by Ofcom, fewer that one in five adults read the redtops “for news” nowadays. Much as tabloid editors would love to justify the kinds of excesses which were revealed years ago by the Information Commissioner – who detailed the “industrial scale” of unlawful acquisition of confidential data by private investigators on behalf of journalists – most British voters simply do not buy that argument to justify prurient invasions of people’s private lives.
So when De Piero says “no one should have to worry that something they did when they were young might prevent them from serving their community or getting involved in politics”, the vast majority would agree with her. Those who are trying to boost circulations on the back of other people’s misery or humiliation – as some of our newspapers have done for years – will find little solace in their “public interest” arguments.