How modern editors define 'in the public interest'

For those of you not familiar with the Press Complaints Commission’s Editors’ Code of Practice, here is what it says about privacy:


i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent.

Note – Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy…

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety.
ii) Protecting public health and safety.
iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
3. Whenever the public interest is invoked, the PCC will require editors to demonstrate fully that they reasonably believed that publication, or journalistic activity undertaken with a view to publication, would be in the public interest.

4. The PCC will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain, or will become so.

5. In cases involving children under 16, editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interest of the child.

So, it would be interesting to see the Mail Online editor justify this ‘story‘ [ link] about Billie Piper taking her son to the park – complete with 6 photos, 4 of which contain the 2-year-old child.

It seems to me that the moden editor has subverted the meaning of what is in the ‘public interest’. Originally a story would be in the ‘public interest’ when it had some kind of meaningful impact upon their own lives – i.e. it would be in their personal interest to know the contents of the story. For example, the ‘public interest’ defence is designed to be used to justifiably invade the privacy of politicians. As they are elected by the public it is often deemed in the public interest that voters know as much as possible about who they vote for. I.e. the politician selling themselves as a trustworthy family man who has an affair can expect for this information to be released by the press, his public standing makes it in the public interest – voters want to make an informed decision.

However, the modern editor seems to believe that ‘public interest’ means anything that the public might want to look at and anything that will direct more traffic to a website. Therefore whilst seeing pictures of Billie Piper’s 2-year-old son is in no way defensible under the real meaning of the public interest clause, it is serving up the seeming need for the public to know as much as possible about the mundanities of celebrities. It seems to me that because the PCC is a passive regulator (and regulator is here used in the loosest possible sense) such stories will only be challenged on an individual basis. If Billie Piper simply accepts that this is what being famous entails, then the PCC will not remind editors of the real meaning of public interest, nor the real meaning of privacy. As far as I can tell such invasive journalism is now standard practice because it is never formally challenged by the PCC – see the numerous creepy stories about Suri Cruise as a case-in-point here.

Then again, even if the PCC thought such practice was unacceptable, what action could they take? They are a regulator only in name.

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