Leveson: The Thorny Problem of Privacy and the Public Interest

Dr Vincent Campbell, Department of Media and Communication, University of Leicester.

Across the Leveson Report’s nigh-on 2000 pages it is arguably as fascinating to note what has been left out as much as what has been included in the Inquiry’s wide-ranging account of the state of the modern press in Britain. In this piece I want to offer a few comments about one of the other problems that the future regulatory environment for the press (in whatever shape it eventually takes) will have to deal with- the complex relationship between privacy and the public interest.

The Inquiry heard from either end of the spectrum of opinions on this issue.  At one end was former tabloid journalist Paul McMullan who colourfully declared ‘privacy is for paedos’, asserting that privacy is simply a means by which people are able ‘to do bad things’ (p. 505).  At the other end were celebrity victims of the press like comedian Steve Coogan who argued that people’s private lives were nobody else’s business.  In an October 12th 2011 Newsnight appearance he asked, referring to the editor of the Daily Mail, ‘Would Paul Dacre like it if I went through his bin? Or asked him what he gets up to in bed? It’s none of my business and it’s none of his’.

Press witnesses in the Inquiry singularly failed to offer much of a defence of their pursuit of people’s private lives other than such stories sold newspapers.  Richard Wallace, former editor of the Daily Mirror, for instance, stated simply he felt that ‘what the public are interested in is a central tenet of public interest’ (p. 606), and he used this defence in the context of the defamatory reporting surrounding Christopher Jeffries and the murder of Jo Yeates.  Of this case and the press perspective, Leveson’s own position is clear when he states:

‘The story about Mr Jefferies is a prime example of why the elision of the public interest with what interests the public is dangerous.  It may well interest the public to read private, scandalous and defamatory material about a suspect to a murder, but it is clearly not in the wider public interest for newspapers to act in contempt of court, let alone erroneously to destroy a man’s reputation.’ (p. 607)

The latter part of this statement is undoubtedly true, but the recognition that some people are interested in other people’s private lives is never developed into a consideration of why this might be the case.  In fact Leveson explicitly defers from any consideration of why such stories sell newspapers (and proliferate online), stating that such wider questions ‘are beyond the scope of this Inquiry’ (p. 719).  Attitudinally, however, it’s pretty clear that Leveson does not really understand what (at least some of) the public are interested in or why.  He goes on to say:

‘[M]any would argue that the modern celebrity culture cannot simply be an artefact of a certain section of the press; it is a reflection of the fact that many people appear to be endlessly curious about the personal lives of sportsmen and women, film and pop stars, fashion models and those who attain celebrity status without having done much more than create or benefit from a public persona which attracts interest.’ (p. 719)

Leveson presents a consistent position that in his view an endless curiosity in people’s private lives, also described as merely ‘tittle tattle’, is rarely if ever in the public interest.  Yet over the months in which Leveson has been compiling and finalising his report the Jimmy Savile scandal has arisen, in which the private lives of a whole raft of people, many of them public figures in politics, entertainment and beyond have clearly been in the public interest, raising important issues about a variety of institutions and their organisation, cultural attitudes towards sexual behaviour and re-igniting concerns about the social care of children.  Coogan’s assertion that what people do in bed is nobody’s business cannot be an absolute, laid down in statute or a code of practice, as situations and circumstances create exceptions whereby private lives may become in the public interest to report on insofar as they may act as a focus for wider public debate about social mores.  Leveson acknowledges this problem to some extent:

‘[T]he fact that a story might be hurtful, damaging or intrusive to the subjects of a story is not necessarily a reason not to publish that story.  It may not even be a reason to amend the story.  But it is difficult to see why the consequences on the individuals who are likely to be affected by publication should not both be relevant and factored into the overall decision.’ (p. 608)

This seems a very clear and sensible position at first glance, that weighing personal harm and consequences- of apparently little to no concern to the tabloid press based on their evidence to the Inquiry- needs to be seriously considered.  Yet part of the justification for the Inquiry in the first place came from the revelation, in The Guardian, of the hacking of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone by tabloid journalists, a revelation of undoubted affect on the Dowler family but also of significant public interest.  Similarly, in early October this year Jimmy Savile’s nephew died, according to family allegedly of heartbreak over the allegations against his uncle, yet again should the possibility of tragic personal consequences of this kind outweigh the public interest in reporting the Savile scandal?

Leveson’s own assertions about the grounds for a public interest defence of the reporting of private lives echo the existing Editorial Code of the much maligned Press Complaints Commission:

‘There is a real public interest in exposing crime or serious impropriety, protecting public health and safety and, depending on the circumstances, preventing the public from being misled.’ (p. 525)

But he also acknowledges that any new regulatory Code has to address likely remaining differential interpretations of what is or isn’t in the public interest even within such a framework:

‘The Inquiry has heard that different editors have different views on what constitutes the public interest, and that may well be the case.  The Code will have to take a sufficiently broad approach to encompass the different views and different perspectives of different types of journalism.  However, the regulator, when applying the Code, will have to adopt a consistent interpretation of the public interest.’ (p. 1763)

Providing a consistent interpretation of the public interest is an intrinsically problematic task therefore, and Leveson provides no sustained pronouncements as to what a consistent interpretation of the public interest might look like, only proposals for a more rigorous monitoring system for whatever that interpretation might be.  Given this problem, whatever replacement system of press regulation emerges in the wake of this report, there will continue to be tensions between journalism in the public interest and people’s private lives as there are inevitably occasions when these overlap, and thus the potential for disputes between news organisations and individuals over their privacy will remain whether Leveson’s recommendations are taken up in whole or in part.

Dr Vincent Campbell, Department of Media and Communication, University of Leicester.

Page references refer to the Leveson Report.

One Comment

  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 05/01/2013 at 12:37 | Permalink

    As with most complexities in life, the solution is to remove the complexity. This can be done by through two simple laws. The first law would be to make it illegal to publish anything about anyone of a salacious or potentially damaging nature until they have been convicted of a crime with the exception of the FA, FIFA, politicians, policemen and judges. The second law would make it compulsory to register a publication as a Newspaper. Any unregistered publications would have to have these words reproduce at the top and bottom of each page in 28 point type, “This is an unregistered trashpaper. Nothing you read here is likely to be true”. On web pages, this message would have to be repeated as the reader scrolled down. Every Tweet could substitute “Lies and Trash” in capital letters at the beginning of every tweet fo the sake of brevity.

    All publications would start of as unregistered and would have to earn registered Newspaper status by not breaking the first law for 6 months. When registered, any infringement would, automatically remove the registered status. A tribunal of 3 rival editors and 4 elected members would be required to make the decision within 48 hours of the publication date. Any publication that was not registered but failed to publish the trashpaper message as prescribed would have to pay a fine of £1 per copy or web site hit per day for the duration of the breach.

    Any editor who broke the first law would be imprisoned automatically for 6 months without trial but could receive compensation if the allegation subsequently proved to be true. This reverses the positions of public and editors as it stands at present. An unregistered trashpaper would have one advantage in that it would have immunity from libel laws so that gossip papers, Twitter, etc. could remain unregistered trashpapers by having two editors who took it in turns to go to prison if they broke the first law infrequently. However, Twitter, the Sun and the Daily Mail would need a regiment of editors so rather than going to prison they may be forced to work as teachers in failing schools.

    Because this would be simple, straight forward and effective, we can be certain it will never be implimented. Something that does not work, keeps libel lawyers in business and has to be revised in 10 years time will be put in place.

    [Reply]

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