The Differences Between Stories That Are In The Public Interest And Those That Are Of Interest To The Public

This essay will compare, contrast and discuss the differences between public interest journalism and journalism that is of interest to the public. The essay will attempt to decipher where the lines of the two aforementioned concepts become opaque whilst at the same time, acknowledging the mutual interest of the necessity to public knowledge and gratuitous salacity.

Journalism that is in the public interest is the fundamental backbone to a functioning democracy. In theory, public interest journalism is an inestimable aide in maintaining the accountability of people who work in the field of crown approved authority or of senior figures in private sector enterprise. A Celebrated practitioner of investigative journalism such as Veronica Guerin (1958-1996) was, amongst others, a beacon of public interest journalism. She investigated political malpractice, high ranking criminals and the occasional blurred lines between the two.

Veronica Guerin was murdered in June 1996 due to her fearless exposure and relentless investigation of senior figures in the Dublin underworld. Her death resulted in the incumbent Taoiseach, John Bruton, calling her slaying “an attack on democracy” (Collings: 2001, 61). Her work was a combination of public interest and interest to the public. The general public enjoy reading investigative crime reporting, in a similar way that they enjoy reading about sexual indiscretion. Unlike most stories concerning sexual practice, Guerin’s genre of journalism was of a genuine public interest. Her tenacious inquiries into the practices of notorious Dublin figures like Martin Cahill and John Gilligan were of a great inconvenience to both of them. Gilligan in particular went to the extent of threatening to “sexually assault her young son if she didn’t back off”. (Good: 2008, 129). When Guerin was murdered, the public outcry was of such magnitude as to lead almost immediately to the Criminal Justice Act of 1996 (Drug Trafficking), ratified in the Dail five weeks after her death.

Veronica’s martyrdom has not been in vain. Her death was a wake up call that has inspired citizens to action. People countrywide have been putting pressure on the Government to empower the Gardai and the courts even further. Never in the history of Ireland has legislation been enacted as swiftly as this crime bill was (Sager: 2003, 98)

The work and fate of Veronica Guerin was as powerful a testament to strength of investigative and public interest journalism as could possibly occur.

The classic example of the blurred lines of public interest journalism and journalism that is of interest to the public is a News of the World story which “broke in June 1963 that was to prove a watershed in British newspaper history” (de Burgh: 2008, 321). This is now colloquially known as the Profumo scandal and the ramifications of the exposé were of such profundity, as to inadvertently lead to the resignation of the UK Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, three months after Profumo’s admission of culpability. For the News of the World, a paper that had historically leant towards scandalous revelation, this story was perfect. A member of cabinet who was having an extramarital affair would have been a substantial story in itself. The fact that John Profumo was having a sexual liaison with a woman who was simultaneously sexually entertaining a Russian naval attaché, during the height of the cold war, gave the perfect ingredients for a story which was of both in the public interest and also provided an interest to the public. Such was the suspicion in Western Society in the era of the Profumo scandal of any senior figures in the Russian empire and the potential compromising of national security, the story was in the public interest. The fact that the story also revealed that a senior politician could be susceptible to the same lascivious desires as everybody else, provided mass titillation to an audience that expected more wholesome behaviour from a man of his social standing.

In March 2008, The News of the World lead with a story which claimed that head of Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, Max Moseley, had a “sick Nazi orgy with five hookers” (Petley: 2013, 68) and had also indulged in sadomasochistic practices. In the parliamentary Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions of 2012, it was stated that “Witnesses did not think the commercial viability of the press was a valid factor in determining public interest in stories. Max Moseley thought that is should never be a consideration as the idea of breaching someone’s privacy, with all the pain it can cause, for commercial gain is abhorrent and inhumane” (Moseley: 2012, 26). When Justice David Eady awarded Moseley £60,000 of damages in 2009, during his summary he said that “there was no public interest or other justification for the clandestine recording, for the publication of the resulting information” (Steel: 2012, 95). The News of the World had great difficulty in using the public interest argument for their revelations of Moseley’s sexual practices. Unlike Profumo, his senior position at the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile was not compromised by his behaviour. He was not found to be in the thrall of a potential blackmail nor was anybody else coming to any harm or distress by his private activity. It is very difficult to ascertain what the public interest was into Moseley’s activities apart from its obvious salacity.

An argument frequently used by the press for revelation of prominent sports figures private activities is that of their status of being media appointed role models. In recent times, John Terry, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs have obtained super injunctions over extra marital liasons they were conducting away from their respective partners when they realised that the press were about to reveal them. Whatever the moral positions of Terry, Rooney or Giggs are in their activities, the public interest into what they are doing in their free time is debatable unless it is illegal or compromises their professional integrity. In all three cases, there was found to be nothing illegal and there was no corruption, or even a suggestion of corruption occurring. That the three figures were (and indeed are) famous sportsmen who draw an immense amount of admiration from young people is not disputed. However, the use of the role model argument by the mass media as their reason for revelation of their behaviour can be viewed by some as spurious. Whilst it is established that they were neither breaking the law or professionally compromised, the question must be asked as to why it is in the public interest to reveal what the figures do for enjoyment in their none vocational time.

Ultimately people are interested in what can be labelled soft news, which is why the public interest argument about the lifestyles of famous figures is used by the press. The fact that The News of the World was by some distance the most popularly read newspaper in the UK prior to its demise in 2011 is testament to that argument. “The most popular journalism remains that which taps into human conflict, true crimes and scandalous disclosure” (Hartley: 2009, 313), all written and revealed under the veneer of public interest. The News of the World however were not shy of getting involved in hard news. They “spearheaded a campaign which called for Sarah’s law, a law that would give all parents controlled access to the offender’s register” (Marsh & Melville: 2009, 111). This campaign was aggressively pursued by the paper’s editor Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade) who “vowed to name and shame any politician who impedes her newspaper’s crusade for tougher laws against paedophiles.” (BBC: 2000) At a time of extreme emotion over the death of seven year old girl, The News of the World created a popular campaign for legislation over information about sexual offenders, even though there was no evidence of there being any sexual assault on Sarah Payne. It could be argued that the threat to name and shame any MP who opposed the scheme at a time of such high emotion was undemocratic. With the introduction of Section 235(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, more informally known as ‘Sarah’s Law’, the News of the World campaign for legislation was ultimately successful as according to home office statistics, it “had saved 208 youngsters in its first year” (Daily Telegraph: 2012)

This essay focussed primarily on the activities of Veronica Guerin and the now defunct News of the World. Guerin’s work could have fitted snugly into the remit of the News of the World’s genre of reporting without alienating the paper’s core demographic. Despite that observation, there were substantial differences in the reporting style of Guerin and the one that was found to be the modus operandi of the News of the World when it abruptly ceased publication in July 2011. What both Guerin and The News of the World do have in common is that their impact dramatically changed their immediate environments, both while they practiced their trades and also in the immediate and long standing wake of their respective passing.

Bibliography

Literary sources

Barnhurst, K and Noone, J Handbook Of Journalism Studies, The (2009) Oxford: Routledge

Bruton, John in Collings, Anthony (2001) Words of Fire: Independent Journalists Who Challenge Dictators, Drug Lords and Other Enemies of a Free Press, New York:New York University Press

de Burgh, Hugo (2008) Investigative Journalism, Oxford: Routledge

Good, Howard (2008) Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Hartley, John in Handbook of Journalism Studies, The (2009) Oxford: Routledge

Marsh, Ian & Melville, Gaynor Crime, Justice and the Media (2009) Oxon: Routledge

Petley, Julian Media And Public Shaming: Drawing The Boundaries Of Disclosure (2013) London: J.B.Taurus & Co Ltd

Sager, Mike Scary Monsters and Super Freaks (2003) New York: Avalon Publishing

Steel, John Journalism and Free Speech (2012) Oxon: Routledge

 

Electronic Sources

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/866397.stm (Retrieved 11.30AM 28/10/2013)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/9185638/Sarahs-Law-saves-200-children-government-says.html (Retrieved 11.40AM 28/10/2013)

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