Journalists not above the law and morality, warns Information Commissioner
Journalists shouldn’t confuse what is in the public interest, with what interests the public, according to the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham.
Mr Graham also warned journalists that they should not become so arrogant as to think they are above morality and the law, during a special lecture at the University of Sheffield.
Mr Graham, who cut his journalistic teeth as a trainee working for BBC Radio Sheffield, holds a vitally important role in the current debate over media standards, regulation and the balance between privacy and freedom of expression.
The body he heads administers both the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act, both of which play a large part in the working lives of journalists.
He argued that whether a story is in the public interest was an important question that editors and journalists must ask themselves.
He pointed to the example of the Guardian using a “cod fax” to expose the lies of former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken and his links to Arab arms dealers.
“This was using subterfuge and it was underhand. But it was also manifestly in the public interest that this story be published.
“It is often very finely balanced, but the public interest can’t just be what the press says it is. There has to be a higher purpose to it.
“Journalists should not become so arrogant that they believe they are above morality and the law.”
He said the obsession by some tabloid newspapers with the private lives of celebrities made it more difficult to make the argument that some stories are in the public interest.
Turning to the current phone hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry, he pointed out that back in 2003 the Information Commissioner’s Office had sounded alarm bells about journalists accessing private information as part of its Operation Motorman investigations.
“It was pointed out that 27 national titles and 303 journalists had made frequent use of a private investigator to get hold of personal information and we asked what should be done about it. The answer was nothing at all.
“The Information Commissioner’s office also called for a more effective deterrent to the blagging of personal information.”
On press regulation Mr Graham said his personal view was he hoped statutory regulation would not be introduced, partly because of doubts of “where does journalism stop and blogging begin”.
But he added that to for self-regulation to be effective and to avoid conflicts of interest it was his view that serving editors should not be appointed to the adjudicating body.
Mr Graham’s was the latest in a series of guest lecture organised by the Department of Journalism Studies.