Privacy or press freedom? Journalism needs to juggle both
October 6, 2010 17 Comments
Last night, at City University London, a distinguished panel of journalists and lawyers debated the extent to which a reporter should go to in order to get a story. The discussion was in light of the continuing investigation into the News of the World’s supposedly routine hacking of phones. Here, The Student gives his tuppence worth.
Phone hacking is, in essence, the eternal discussion of where privacy ends and public interest begins. Those who believe that phone hacking is immoral and has no place in journalism generally believe that privacy should be preserved. Others who feel hacking is legitimate normally say people in the public eye should be accountable for their actions because of the influence they hold.
I come down somewhere in the middle. I don’t believe that reporters should not have to obey the law 100% of the time and feel there are occasions when finding sources for a stories by illegal means is permissible. History has certainly shown that the best journalism is often a product of unethical means. Watergate and the recent expenses scandal, which the Telegraph broke on the back of acquiring a stolen disk, demonstrate that acting unethically has it’s rewards. From a journalist’s point of view, big stories, the ones that shake society to the core, do not magically appear. And I’d like to think that a large proportion of the public would also want newspapers to use whatever means necessary to get a story which has far reaching implications.
In addition to that, looking at phone hacking in the bigger picture, making newspapers investigate stories more ‘ethically’ would alter the fundamental essence of the press. The press, almost by definition, needs to behave radically. And as Sir Ken Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions warned, the consequences of restricting the freedom of the press are more dire than if tabloids continue to run amok. If we put a harness on the press, we are effectively putting a harness on democracy and that is dangerous.
However, despite all that, I do believe newspapers continually misinterpret and misrepresent this notion of public interest. They break stories about John Terry and Katie Price under the guise of public interest and insist they did it because we, the public, needed to know. In short, they are using the very malleable term of ”public interest” as an excuse for a free reign to print what they like and boost their sales figures. That’s not on. They shouldn’t be able to speak on our behalf and to define public interest when it, by definition, is determined by the public.
Alas, I have no answer, just like the esteemed panel of Nick Davies, Roy Greenslade and Andrew Caldecott QC had no answer last night. But what I do know is that the current blanket rules making phone hacking for any story wrong does not achieve anything. The guidelines laid down by the Press Complaints Commission should be flexible enough to allow phone hacking for certain cases, involving politicians, but not celebrities.
Until that happens, the privacy versus press freedom debate will continue to rumble on.