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Plenty of organisations have drafted an interpretation of the public interest in their codes of conduct. In Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO)’s Editors’ Code of Practice (Editors’ Code Committee, 2017), BBC’s Editorial Guidelines (no date) and The Ofcom Broadcasting Code (Ofcom, 2017), examples of the public interest are illustrated, including “but not confining to” detecting or revealing crime, protecting public health and safety and preventing the public from being misled by a statement or action of an individual or organisation. In National Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) code of conduct (2011), it is also stated that a journalist must obtain material by honest and open means unless the investigation is both “overwhelmingly in the public interest and involves evidence that cannot be obtained by straightforward means”. Moreover, a journalist cannot intrude into anyone’s private life unless it is justified by “overriding consideration of the public interest”. However, there is no single specific definition or a coherent set of principles that can determine what the public interest is. It could be because it is simply too difficult to establish a more solid definition for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the notion of the public interest differs on a case-by-case basis (Morrison and Svennevig, 2002). If it is a kiss-and-tell story of a footballer, it might not be in the public interest to disclose it. On the other hand, if it is about a politician who campaigns for the “family values”, then there is no doubt that the public interest is a legitimate ground to report the story. In addition, its meaning is constantly redefined. In a discussion conducted by The Guardian’s Chris Elliott (2012), Andrew Sparrow, who worked for the newspaper, gave a hypothetical example that, 50 years ago, it might have been in the public interest to know that an MP was gay, but there would have been little or no public interest in knowing that he was a drunk driver or a wife beater. But nowadays, it has become the other way round.

The fact that there is no clear definition of the public interest leads to a number of issues when it comes to reporting. Firstly, it gives considerable opportunities for the press to deliberately misinterpret the phrase or commit malpractice (O’Leary and Tryhorn, 2012). Robert Jay QC, in his opening submission to the Leveson Inquiry (2011), addressed this issue and outlined that “the public interest is very often deployed as some sort of trump card. If it is too loosely defined, it ends up with the press delving into the affairs of those who are celebrities and those who are not in a way which unethically penetrates a domain which ought to remain private.” In the case of PJS v News Group Newspapers Ltd 2016, the claimant anonymised as PJS sought an injunction restraining a publication by The Sun on Sunday which talked about his sexual encounter with two people who neither was his spouse (Saul, 2016). The Supreme Court ruled in the claimant’s favour and decided that there was “not any public interest” in disclosing private sexual activities, no matter how many people were involved, how famous the people involved were and if infidelity was involved, and that the identities of PJS and his spouse should remain secret. However, The Sun believed that it was their freedom of expression to publish the article and called the ruling a “staggering judgment” (Wells, 2016). Even though The Sun on Sunday did not acquire the information initiatively, as one of the people PJS had sexual activities with told the newspaper of the story voluntarily (Watson, 2016), the fact that the newspaper wanted to publish the story and name the persons involved shows that they did not consider the matter to be their privacy, which goes against the Supreme Court’s judgment.

Another issue that is brought by the public interest not being clearly defined is that the ethical and legal boundaries when a journalist is pursuing a story are not clarified, either (O’Leary and Tryhorn, 2012). In 2011, Amelia Hill, a Guardian journalist who broke the story about News of the World hacking the voicemail of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, was questioned under caution by police investigating leaks from within Scotland Yard’s phone-hacking probe (Roberts, 2012). After nine months of investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided not to prosecute Hill, as “the public interest outweighed the overall criminality alleged”, said Alison Levitt QC, principal legal advisor to the Director of Public Prosecutions (Morgan, 2012). According to the CPS, Hill wrote 10 articles containing confidential information provided by a detective working on Operation Weeting between April and August 2011, and there was sufficient evidence to prosecute both of them under the Data Protection Act. However, since any damage caused by the disclosure of confidential information was “minimal”, they were not charged (Morgan, 2012). Even though the journalist broke the law, she did it in the name of the public interest, thus it was justified. But it is difficult to measure how serious the criminality is and how great the public interest is against each other, especially since the concept of the public interest is undefined, and it is even more difficult to predict how severe the damages would be before they are done. The fact that Amelia Hill was questioned and had the possibility of being charged in the first place indicates that where the lines should be drawn remained a problem that was yet to be solved.

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As it has been examined, the public interest being too loosely outlined has brought the act of journalism some issues that need to be taken better care of, and only listing examples when setting up guidelines on the public interest is not enough. While it might be impossible to have a precise definition that suits every situation, a more developed and detailed definition of the public interest needs to be established in order for judgments to be made more rationally and objectively. Only in this way can good journalism function properly and continue on serving the common good.


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