Ethical journalism v. Privacy Invaders: A British perspective

When pursuing a story, American journalists regularly balance a person’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know.

A good place to start to look at how to determine that point is the Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists. Under the section “Minimize Harm” there is the following point:

  • Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.

The First Amendment is an important part of the protection journalism in the United States has. Fortunately those news outlets that invade a person’s privacy just for the salacious nature of the information are often quickly relegated to the grocery check out lanes and obscure corners of the Internet.

But in other countries, privacy invasion for the sake of invasion could lead to legal consequences that could damage all journalists.

Brian Cathcart, journalist and professor of journalism at Kingston University in the U.K., recently discussed the issue of privacy invaders a the Index on Censorship web site.

Cathcart discusses a number of cases in the British media — not just the tabloids — where the invasion of a subject’s privacy was not necessarily in the public interest.

There is a confusion at the heart of British debates about privacy. We tend to speak of journalists, of their role, their rights, their responsibilities and very often their lack of restraint and how it should be addressed. But this is misleading, and prevents us from seeing some of the complexities and possibilities, because the word ‘journalist’, in this context, covers two very different groups of people. One group is the actual journalists, as traditionally understood, and the other is those people whose principal professional activity is invading other people’s privacy for the purpose of publication.

And it is the professional privacy invaders, Cathcart argues who are bad for journalism.

The difference between the two, when you pause to consider it, is profound. Journalism is demonstrably valuable to society. It tells us what is new, important and interesting in public life, it holds authority to account, it promotes informed debate, it entertains and enlightens

But…

Invading people’s privacy for the purpose of publication does not do good, though it may make money. In that industry, deception and payment for information are routine, not exceptional. The subject matter is almost never important — except to the victims, whose lives may be permanently blighted – and while a story may entertain, it does so only in the way that bear-baiting and public executions used to entertain. The whole activity exists on the border of legality, skipping from one side of the line to the other at its own convenience and without sincere regard for the public interest.

And the bottom line:

This is an urgent matter. Because of the serial horrors…the demand for statutory regulation of the press is growing. The Press Complaints Commission has failed to shore up standards or to convince the public that the press is sincere in wanting to regulate itself. If journalists, for reasons of nostalgia, inertia, confusion or misplaced loyalty, choose to keep swimming with the privacy intruders, they may well drown with them. If they push themselves free, then there is a better chance that we will find ways of protecting the freedoms that are vital to journalism.

The column is well worth a read. While many of the “serial horrors” have not occurred in the States and the First Amendment protects American journalism from specific legislation governing how the craft is practiced, wanton invasion of privacy erodes public confidence in journalism. It is that trust that makes  journalism important to a democracy.

Many thanks to Roy Greenslade for pointing out this report in his Guardian blog.

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