The Public Interest

Houses of Parliament

The fourth episode in our weekly guide.

No one has ever drafted a legal definition of the public interest. It is a concept that changes with the times. The starting point is that people have a right to privacy and confidentiality, and intrusion must be justified by a higher public good. In legal terms, this higher public good is called ‘the public interest’. Writers have a right to publish public interest stories. At times, the public interest will over-ride the ordinary restrictions on a writer’s freedom to write. This guide will consider when a writer can lay claim to a public interest defence in the face of censorship, sanction or prosecution. But first there will be some attempt to define the scope and meaning of this elusive concept.

The Press Complaints Commission (“PCC”) describes the public interest as including, but not confined to:

  1. Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety;
  2. Protecting public health and safety;
  3. Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

The PCC goes on to state that in cases involving children under 16, a writer must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to override the importance of protecting children’s interests.

 Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, suggested an addition to the PCC Code. He argued that whenever a writer or editor is considering intruding on someone’s privacy, they should consider the following:

  1. There must be sufficient cause. In other words, the level of harm caused by the intrusion must be justified by the importance of the publication.
  2. There must be integrity of motive. The writer must not be acting in spite or malice.
  3. The methods used must be in proportion to the seriousness of the business in hand, using minimum intrusion.
  4. There must be proper authority. Any intrusion must be authorised at a sufficiently senior level and undertaken with appropriate oversight.
  5. There must be a reasonable prospect of successfully uncovering material in the public interest. In other words, no fishing expeditions.

 It will become apparent throughout this guide that freedom of speech in controversial and sensitive areas is often justified because it is in the public interest. In addition to the examples given by the PCC, and drawing on the principles that emerge from the cases, the following areas are likely to be considered in the public interest:

  1. The exposure of fraud, corruption, crime or anti-social behaviour;
  2. The promotion of transparent decision making in public bodies and about public spending;
  3. The support of probity and value for money;
  4. Debates on key issues such as public health, policing, the prison system, public displays of religion, protest, public spending and commerce.
  5. The disclosure of information that allows people to make more informed decisions about matters of public importance;
  6. The exposure of incompetence in public office;
  7. Information about the workings of government and its officials, both elected and appointed;
  8. Information about private corporations, voluntary organisations and organs of the media which require the public’s trust.

 The author and journalist Glenda Cooper gives an illuminating illustration of what the public interest is not: The person who believes in flying saucers or is conducting a sado-masochistic relationship may be a council officer or a department store manager. But this cannot be presumed to affect their behaviour in their job. There is no obvious public interest in ET believers or in sado-masochists.  

Next week: National Security

Last Reviewed: March 2012

One Comment on “The Public Interest”

  1. There is one more area where freedom of expression has been oppressed legally with support of the general public, writers, business and authorities: so-called Intellectual Property. In 17-18th centuries it was quite clear that printing privileges do not serve public interest and copyright-like regulations had met fierce opposition from enlightened public. The opposition was overcome when big printer interests coincided with political urgency of the Crown. This is is how the Statute of Queen Anne, the first copyright law was incepted in 1710. The false speculations it was based on has never been substantiated, but they serve oppression of the freedom of expression for more than 300 years. They serve oppression while has been being repeated by virtually all so that they seem unequivocal true as of today. But they are not. No freedom of expression is possible while copyright is here and this relationship is getting worse day by day.

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