Digital mining: When does the private become public?

Heather Reynolds examines the ethics behind the balancing act of personal privacy and public interest.

There are many reasons why journalism comes under fire, and there are few which occur more regularly than individuals feeling that their privacy has not been respected. The line between public interest and the right to privacy is one every journalist has to walk, and it is one of those many standards that remains a moving target. If a private aspect of an individual’s life can be argued to be in the public interest, than it can be argued that it is not only the right of a journalist, but a responsibility to report on it. However, all journalists are human, and therefore are not omniscient. They can only assume something is important enough to be in the public interest, and hence, mistakes are made, and made often.

One of the most noteworthy instances of one such mistake was brought to light during the Leveson inquiry which was held between 2011 and 2012. The inquiry examined the ethical practices of many British news organisations, with a focus on News International, which was owned by Rupert Murdoch. In 2007, both the editor of News of the World, which was owned by News International and a private investigator were convicted of the illegal interception of phone messages. While they claimed this was an isolated incident, further investigation turned up the hacking of the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a murder victim. Thus, the Leveson inquiry was set up to seek the full scope of this issue within British journalism. Throughout the inquiry, 337 witnesses were called and 300 separate statements were recorded. One of these witness statements was from Rupert Murdoch himself, who admitted to covering up the scope of the problem in the numerous papers he owned.

The argument put forward for these actions, the illicit hacking of private individuals phones and voicemails, was that it served the public interest. It allowed them to present a more in depth scope of the information, or allowed them to follow up on new leads. However, this could not be proven, and so led to a proposed reform of the ethical standards of journalism in the UK. However, Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, did not follow through on the recommendations. No matter what your stance on an individual’s right to privacy, it is clear that this went too far. Hacking a missing girl’s voicemail, creating activity which sparked hope that she may still have been alive, is too far.

Not long after that, the UK’s parliamentary expenses scandal was brought to light. This 2009 scandal arose from leaked documents, which detailed the expenses claimed by sitting MPs at the time, with claims such as MPs renting out their second homes that they were still claiming expenses on, or over claiming for food expenses. Five Sinn Féin MPs who abstained from taking their Westminster seats, still claimed almost £500,000 pounds in second home allowances, despite not needing a second home in London to facilitate them taking their seats. This story was clearly in the public interest, as this was the public’s tax money being spent to facilitate these claims, and the public definitely took interest in it. This scandal cost many MPs their career in politics, and is believed to be one of the key reasons for the loss in seats for major parties in the following general election. However, many still claimed that it was an invasion of privacy. This is despite all information being verified to be true at the time of printing, and with all MPs named being given a right of reply, which is an opportunity to respond to what will be printed, to be published with that story.

However, even setting aside that efforts were made on behalf of journalists to ensure that all those named were given the space to justify themselves, most would still not view it as an invasion of privacy. Those affected were publicly elected officials who were still sitting in their public positions, using public money to fund private expenses. How that money is proportioned and where it is used is in the public interest if those private expenses are mismanaged, or if loopholes were exploited, which they were. Several individuals had exploited the system to the point where criminal charges were brought against them, most of whom were found guilty. This reporting allowed for the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, an authority which examined the claims and salaries of parliamentary members at an “arm’s length”. It also allowed constituents to hold their MPs to account, and directly press them on issues that matter to them, that were not getting as much funding. In this case, it can be clearly shown that the public interest outweighed the claims of individual privacy not being respected.

Alongside this are the circumstances through which the information is gathered. With the Leveson inquiry, the information at hand was found due to hacking. With the expenses scandal, a whistleblower leaked the documents. One involved a direct and conscious invasion of privacy, the other simply being the following of a lead provided by someone likely involved in the system.

In this issue, the key seems to lie with the relevancy to public life, expressed alongside how much of a delve into an individual’s privacy is required. For example, the tweets on a private Twitter account of a captain of a college sports team regarding his ex partner are not as key to the public interest as the leaked texts from a TD expressing that he intends to vote against welfare legislation which refers to claimants as “scroungers”, or due to a private grievance with the TD who put the legislation forward. Text messages are considered more private than tweets, even on a protected account. However, the content and the circumstances surrounding that content, are what make it public interest. Herein lies the distinction, and herein lies the key to the question of when a private matter becomes a public story. What is needed is not a hard and fast rule on what is or is not public interest, but instead an understanding of the ethics behind the distinction, and someone to hold those responsible to account when they get it wrong.