RELEASE DATE: 18 January 2013
The latest review of the Editor’s Code is a golden opportunity to broaden out the definition of what is in the public interest, says the Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIoJ).
Cleland Thom, a member of the Institute’s Professional Practices Board, said: “The Code’s definition of public interest is narrow and contradicts the fundamental right to free speech.
“The public interest definition is critically important, because it determines whether a publisher is entitled to breach the code in certain circumstances. The stricter the definition, the more restricted our free press becomes.”
At the moment, public interest includes detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety, protecting public health and safety and preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
Mr. Thom said: “This definition is ‘taken as read’ during the ongoing discussions about press regulation. But now is the time to question it.
“The PCC’s definition of public interest was made even stricter with changes that came into force in 2010. Now, an editor must justify what the public interest was in a story from the time an investigation starts.
“This means that if there’s a complaint, an editor must provide a paper trail to prove what the public interest was in pursuing the story in the first place. This is certain to curtail investigative journalism.
“Sometimes a journalist has to ‘fish’ to see if a story is worth investigating. This ‘pre-investigation’ may draw a blank, even though the reporter was convinced the story was genuine. Gut instinct and experience count for a lot and cannot be demonstrated with written evidence and a nice, neat paper trail.”
The CIoJ will be taking part in the on-going public consultation on the Editor’s Code and will be recommending that the definition of public interest be altered to read:
‘The Public interest includes (but is not limited to): Any matter that affects people at large, in which they have a legitimate interest or concern about what is going on in society; or what may happen to them or others; provided investigation or publication is not motivated by malice.’