The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press is under way. There is little doubt that News International has broken the law in getting some stories, but other papers and freelance photographers and journalists have also used very dubious, possibly illegal, methods to get stories. There will be changes, or at least there must be changes, if the newspapers were to retain their credibility in the future, and continue to produce good journalism: investigate, expose and enlighten, in interests of the public.
The press will probably defend some of its actions on the notion of the public interest. But then, what is the public interest? Sometimes it seems to be used as synonyms to public demand and what papers want to publish. We like to gossip. Who doesn’t like gossip about someone famous? But is it really in the public interest to invade someone’s privacy so that our curiosity is satisfied? It would be in public interest, for example, if a politician preaching the sanctity of marriage and family values were having an affair, but is it in the public interest to know if an actor or a footballer is having an affair? Since there is no single person or a body that represents the public, it looks at times as if the journalists and editors consider themseves the public. In other words, whatever the papers publish is ipso facto in the public interest, because it is likely to satisfy the public demand thus boost the circulation figures.
The freedom of press is something very important in a democratic society, yet something has gone wrong, very wrong, with certain sections of the press in the UK. There is no easy solution to this problem. A body with real teeth, instead of the toothless, spineless and useless PCC, will probably be required. Perhaps it’s too late: the reputation of the press may be irredeemably tarnished by this whole affair, and together with the emergence of the social media and non-traditional print media, tabloid papers are a dying breed doomed to extinction. Who knows what will happen after the Inquiry, but there is no going back now.