LONDON, July 13 (Reuters) - A better definition of “public interest” would help British media organisations judge how far they can intrude into the private lives of the rich and famous, a study said on Monday.
Prominent figures have a right to a private life and any intrusion has to be justified by a higher public good, the report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University said.
Stephen Whittle, the report’s author, acknowledged this approach could mean some scandals remained uncovered.
“There is greater public interest in protecting private life — and that interest must tolerate the occasional missed misdemeanour,” said Whittle, a former BBC controller of editorial policy.
The concept of public interest affords some measure of legal protection when celebrities bring civil cases claiming invasion of their privacy and can also be used to justify the use of subterfuge by reporters.
Journalistic ethics are under the spotlight following fresh allegations of phone hacking by a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid.
Clive Goodman, a royal reporter from the News of the World, was jailed in 2007 for hacking into the phones of members of the royal family’s household to obtain exclusive stories.
The Guardian has reported the British newspaper arm of Murdoch’s News Corp has since paid 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) to settle court cases with three people — including soccer executive Gordon Taylor — whose phones were violated.
News International has denied allegations its journalists hacked into the phone of thousands of public figures and British police have said they will not investigate the claims.
“The current allegations about the way in which the News of the World and other papers have sought to access personal data are a wake-up call to journalism,” Whittle said.
“A robust definition of the public interest is possible. It is already implicit in codes, statements and legislation.”
The report recommended a series of criteria to justify intrusion into private lives, including the exposure of fraud, corruption, other crime and significant anti-social behaviour.
The “Privacy, probity and public interest” report was based on a year-long research project in which Whittle and co-author Glenda Cooper interviewed figures from across the industry. (Reporting by Keith Weir; Editing by Sophie Hares)