The media coverage of the John Terry affair has reminded us of an important report produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.  The report is by Stephen Whittle and Glenda Cooper and is entitled “Privacy, Probity and the Public Interest”.

The authors have interviewed lawyers, academics, journalists, bloggers and those who have found their privacy invaded by the media.  Their findings include the following:

  • Most people still regard the following as essentially private: sex and sexuality; health; family life; personal correspondence and finance (except where public monies are concerned).
  • Restrictions on resources (newspapers and broadcasters under financial restraints), time (the increasing speed of the news cycle) and perceived public indifference were all seen as more significant obstacles to  investigative journalism than concerns over privacy.
  • It is hard to see evidence of the courts creating a ‘chilling effect’ on responsible journalism exercised in the public interest
  • Invasions of privacy ‘in the public interest’ are justified by some journalists (primarily the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre) as a moral venture. Journalists frequently cite hypocrisy on the part of a public figure or their status as a ‘role model’ in order to validate such invasions. The authors argue that it is hard to prove a connection between private behaviour and public actions.
  • Any approach which recognises that private space is to be protected in principle will run the risk of missing concealed scandals which bear on public life.  But to argue from this that therefore all potentially compromising private relationships must therefore be investigated is not a reasonable posture. There is a greater public interest in the protection of private life: and that interest must tolerate the occasional missed misdemeanour.
  • In practical terms, media investigations have to be proportionate to what is being investigated and clearly targeted. That implies:

–       a clear sense of what the public interest justification might be;

–       the possession of some justifying evidence to take an investigation forward;

–       the minimum amount of deception to achieve it;

–       very clear rules about when secret recording takes place;

–       a clear set of authorisations from within the editorial line management chain;

–       a robust rationale for what is eventually put into the public domain and how.