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Sunday, 22 July 2018

Is It In the Public Interest or Just to Interest the Public?

The recent implementation of GDPR has brought in its train a rash of strap lines on many corporate emails proclaiming the sender’s commitment to the privacy of the recipient, and rightly so.

The problem is partly due to the apparent need for many individuals to download vast amounts of background on a range of social media sites without a thought as to the potential consequences.

The point is that this information is now, almost by default, in the public domain and we have heard recently about companies specialising in analysis how this information can be harvested and used, hopefully, merely for marketing and promotional purposes.  Or is it?

We need to ask ourselves precisely what and how much information do we want the world at large to know about us and whether we should now take a long and searching look at what is published about us on the web.

Have you, for instance, ever googled your name?  It can be an enlightening experience to see just where we are mentioned and in what context.  This has been an interesting experience for me through the publication of Ivan’s Blog and that has sparked a few discussions here and there.  It also revealed that I seem to have an alter ego who is a noted psychiatrist so do please be careful which of the two of us you contact.

The recent an appalling case of Sir Cliff Richard has revived the debate.  The court found that his privacy had been invaded when the police raided his home without apparently informing him but making sure that the  BBC who hired a helicopter to film the event were told what was happening.

Yes, Sir Cliff was awarded significant damages and the BBC says that they are considering an appeal, paid for presumably from the licence fees that a grateful and interested public generates.

Like many of the media outlets the defence was that the programme was “in the public interest”.  I question this absolutely.  There is a significant distinction between “in the public interest” and “what is likely to interest the public?” and there is a line to be drawn between the two.

There is no doubt that in certain instances the public has a right to know the facts and there have been some excellent cases of investigative journalism that have uncovered misdemeanours that had remained hidden.

However, the slide into using the public interest as a valid reason for door stepping people who have been accused by someone sometimes wrongly, of harrying and bullying innocent people and of printing falsehoods and half truths cannot be countenanced.

Even if there is a tenuous link to the public interest, someone can be found completely innocent and will have to suffer years of loss of reputation and general suffering for nothing.

Yes, it might sell papers but where do morals and ethics come into the picture?  

The explosive growth of media other than the printed press in the last few years has made an extraordinary change to the whole practice of news gathering and fulfilment and not always in an admirable way.  We have all heard about “fake news” and that can now be used as another rationale for publication or otherwise.

The moral as I see it is to take scrupulous care when we  publish personal information. The ways in which this can be harvested and used or abused is well beyond the ability of normal people to understand but sadly there can be consequences for any of us that can be both unpleasant and long lasting.


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