Media intrusion into the private lives of individuals can only be justified if it is in the public interest, a newly published report by the Reuters Institute has said.
Stephen Whittle, visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism at Oxford University, said the allegations surrounding alleged “hacking” of mobile phones by the News of the World were a “wake up call” to journalism.
Reporters could justify intrusive techniques if they were investigating stories about Government bodies or other public institutions, he said.
But there was a need for a more robust definition of what was in the public interest, which would exclude the private lives of public figures.
The right to a private life was in itself a significant public good and any intrusion had to be justified by a “higher public good”, he said.
In his report, Privacy, Probity And Public Interest, Whittle, a former controller of editorial policy at the BBC, set out the kinds of stories that would justify intrusion.
Journalists should be able to show that they were examining corruption, fraud, crime, the exposure of incompetence or other issues of public importance, he said.
Co-author Glenda Cooper said disclosures about public figures’ sex lives could not be presumed to pass the public interest test.
“The person who believes in flying saucers or is conducting a sado-masochistic relationship may be a council officer or a department store manager. But this cannot be presumed to affect their behaviour in their job,” she said.
“There is no prima facie public interest in extra-terrestrial believers or in sado-masochists.”
Last year Formula 1 boss Max Mosley won a High Court case against the News Of The World for invasion of privacy after it reported that he engaged in sado-masochistic sex with five prostitutes.
Whittle said the current debate on privacy in the light of the News of the World phone-hacking allegations would “worry” many in the media.
“Some journalists have been completely out of control, losing sight of the ends, let alone the means,” he said, adding that the issue was “another indicator of the challenges around privacy, and where the line should be drawn”.
He recognised there was a “public interest for gossip”, but it is an ethical decision for news organisations to determine what it was or was not legitimate to report.
Journalists need to “think harder” about their actions, he said, adding: “It is important there is a free press, but freedom carries responsibility.
“It doesn’t mean that you have to kow-tow to public authority, but you have to be able to justify what you are doing.
“I certainly hope the report will encourage people to think about, and debate, the issues, and improve some of their behaviour.”
The report says that everyone “needs a private space” which is “crucial to our integrity as human beings”.
It adds: “If the media is going to infringe privacy, it needs to take care that it is standing on the firm ground of public interest and that the means it employs to investigate are not fatally compromised either by the wrong choice of target or the manner in which the investigation is conducted.”
It concludes that it is difficult to balance freedom of speech with the right to privacy, but states: “Better by far, though, if those decisions are called correctly in newsrooms or editorial offices in the first instance.
“The courts are making it clear that they require media responsibility. They have given their steer. They should now be the place of last resort.”