Last month Inforrm had a case comment on the decision in which the High Court refused a privacy injunction because the former manager of the England football team was “undoubtedly a public figure”.  As such, he belonged to “the category of those from whom the public could reasonably expect a higher standard of conduct”.   This is an approach which has long been promoted by the tabloid press.   But the independent evidence strongly suggests that it is not the public’s own view of the  public interest.

The recent Hacked Off poll on press regulation shows that 71% of respondents disagreed with the view that “We can trust newspaper editors to ensure that their
journalists act in the public interest” (see Detailed Results, p.4).  But what is the public’s own view of the nature of public interest? There have, in recent years, been two attempts to assess the public’s view of public interest issues.

First, there work done by Stephen Whittle and Glenda Cooper on behalf of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, set out in their report, Privacy, Probity and the Public InterestAfter a wide ranging series of interviews, the authors concluded that 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).  In response to the argument that a person is a  ‘role model’ the authors argue that it is hard to prove a connection between private behaviour and public actions (see our February 2010 post).

Secondly, Professor Steven Barnett commissioned a public opinion poll from YouGov for the British Journalism Review to test attitudes to the publication of stories which contained some element of intrusion into private or corporate life.  A full report can be found in the original article published earlier this year (and we had a post here).

Respondents were offered three possible answers: the story was “definitely in the public interest” and should be published; the story was not in the public interest “but nevertheless should be published”; the story was a private matter and “should NOT be published”.  One of the examples which was put to the members of the public surveyed concerned a footballer

A well-known England footballer, who is married with young children, is having an affair

Public interest: 6%

Not public interest but should be published: 30%

Should not be published: 58%

In other words, only a tiny minority believed that the “exposure of hypocrisy” of a well known footballer was in the public interest. The other results of the survey are consistent with this approach and it is difficult to see how the position of a former England football manager could be any different.

In short, the view of the Judge in the McClaren case that the publication of the story about a football manager’s extra-marital affair is in the public interest is not in tune with the public’s own view.   It is important not to be misled by the media’s own, self serving assessment of where the balance between privacy and the public interest lies.  The public’s own view is much more sensitive to privacy interests.