The tyranny of ‘the public interest’

The Wikileaks lobby’s idea of what is in the public interest has little to do with us, the living, breathing public.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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In a video posted on the Guardian website, the newspaper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, says that he and a team of senior journalists – those with ‘great knowledge’ – filtered the diplomatic documents leaked by Wikileaks to work out which of them was ‘in the public interest’. Which got me thinking: who decides what is in the public interest? Rusbridger and five or six of his staff? How do they know? Do they ask the public? Is there a secret document somewhere – as yet unleaked – which informs these possessors of ‘great knowledge’ exactly what is and is not in the public interest?

It is striking that for the past two years, the very same Guardian – as well as the New York Times, which also published the Wikileaks documents – has been slating the News of the World for employing phone hackers to eavesdrop on celebs’ private phone conversations. Because now, these two heavyweight broadsheets are likewise publishing material that was obtained in a technically illegal fashion and which also reveals private shenanigans – from American diplomats’ description of Kim Jong-il as ‘flabby’ to the revelation that President Nicolas Sarkozy of France once chased a rabbit around his office.

The Guardian’s defence of its own publication of illegally obtained private discussions between well-known people in contrast to the News of the World’s is interesting. Its media correspondent states: ‘The whole point about the News of the World’s phone hacking is that the stories it obtained could not be said to have been in the public interest, [whereas] we can demonstrate that we are acting in the public interest.’ So it is not in the public interest to reveal what Prince Harry said in private to his girlfriend Chelsy, but it is in the public interest to reveal what Prince Andrew said in private to an American diplomat. It isn’t in the public interest to publish stories about what one celeb thinks of another (‘fat, stupid, UGLY’), but it is in the public interest to tell us that American diplomats think Colonel Gaddafi uses botox and wants to screw his Ukrainian nurse and that Kim Jong-il has a weight problem.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that ‘the public interest’, as defined in these discussions, has very little to do with the living, breathing public. The higher valuation given to the highbrow tittle-tattle spouted by the Wikileaks brigade in contrast to the lowbrow tittle-tattle spouted by the News of the World is really a question of taste, of preference, even of snobbery (‘our gossip is worthier than yours!’), yet it gets dressed up in the pseudo-democratic lingo of the public interest. What these journalists and editors really mean when they talk about ‘what is in the public interest’ is what they think is good for the public – what they have decreed, in their closed-off meetings using some narrow legalistic definitions, to be edifying and respectable enough for publication.

Indeed, often in these discussions a distinction is made between ‘the public interest’ and the actual living public. So one writer says in response to the latest Wikileaks dumping of data that the question editors should always ask about sensitive stories is this: ‘Was it of interest to the public… or in the public interest?’ Apparently ‘that distinction matters’. In other words, just because the public (let’s be honest: the masses) is interested in a story – say, some kind of tabloid exposé – that doesn’t mean the story is necessarily in the public interest. Because ‘the fact of it being interesting to some prurient people says nothing about its importance for the common good’. So ‘the public interest’ has little to do with whether the public is interested, because the public is frequently fickle. The public might be interested in the News of the World‘s reports, but that doesn’t mean that those reports are in the public interest. The ‘public interest’ is separate from the public; it’s a higher power than we mere mortals, a journalistic House of Lords to the noisy Commons that is the actual, physical public.

This idea of an elevated ‘public interest’ – necessarily removed from the baying, swaying public – springs from various profound political debates during recent centuries. In The Federalist Papers of the late 1780s, which sought to ratify and in many ways tame the apparently overly republican American Constitution, James Madison sought to define a ‘public interest’ that existed somewhere above the actual desires of the public.

Madison, referring to the ‘fickleness and passion’ of the public, called for the institutionalisation of the idea of a broader ‘public interest’, which would help guard against the ‘superior force of an interested and overbearing majority’. He believed this public interest would be defined and protected by ‘enlightened citizens’ (1). However, as the authors of the 2001 book Fair and Effective Representation: Debating Electoral Reform and Minority Rights point out, Madison did not go so far as to define ‘the public interest’, recognising that a lively republic would be way too pluralistic for such a notion to take hold and believing that ‘the pluralism that would arise from our factional impulses would, at least, prevent factional tyranny’ (2). Today, the Guardian and others have no such qualms about defining the public interest, a sweeping category that has the power to elevate some ideas (Wikileaks) and to crush others (the Guardian wants News of the World journalists censured and prosecuted for revealing hacked conversations).

In the early twentieth century, when elitist writers were far more open about their contempt for the public, the American intellectual Walter Lippmann also defined the public interest as something separate from us, the people. ‘There is no point in toying with any notion of an imaginary plebiscite to discover the public interest’, he argued, since for ordinary people ‘the public interest is mixed with, and is often at odds with, their private and special interests’. He said the public interest should be defined as ‘what men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently’ (3). In short, the real public is a bit dumb, and thus the public interest should be worked out away from the public, by experts – not unlike those Guardian journalists with ‘great knowledge’. This is only an earlier, more explicit version of the current idea that there is a distinction between what the irrational public is interested in (celebrity gossip apparently) and ‘the public interest’ as defined by those who are rational: Julian Assange, the NYT, the Guardian, and so on.

This is not to argue that Prince Harry’s drunken conversations with his posh pals are in the public interest. Rather it is to question the category of ‘the public interest’ as it is currently constituted and used. Throughout recent history, the public interest has too often been defined as something that runs counter to, and is necessarily at odds with, the passions of the public itself – and that prejudice is being polished anew in the discussion about why some salacious material is in the public interest and other salacious material is not.

Nor is it to argue that there is no such thing as the public. Too often in recent decades, the small numbers of people who have challenged the frequently snobby, undemocratic conception of ‘the public interest’ have tended to be postmodernists and relativists, who believe we are all just too damn different, too wackily and quirkily diverse, to be able to make up anything remotely resembling a people, a citizenry, a republic. But there is such a thing as a public; we do exist; our passions are real and diverse and important. However, any notion of a public interest that is separate to, and thus better than, the public itself is unadulterated elitism masquerading as a democratic instinct. It is also true that some ideas, some information, some stories are better and more worthy than others – but that is something that should be worked out and decided through the exercise of public debate, not by cut-off experts who claim to have some magical understanding of what the public really thinks and wants. All those fools cheering Wikileaks and Co. for realising our ‘right to know’ fail to realise that these elitist groups believe we only have a ‘right to know’ certain things: Prince Andrew’s meltdown, yes; Prince Harry’s meltdown, no.

In the name of press freedom, I support both the Guardian’s right to discuss leaked dross about Sarkozy and the News of the World’s right to publish hacked material about princes. Freedom of speech is always in the public interest (by which I mean actual everyday people’s interests). I just wish both publications would put aside the snooty, fake-sounding ‘public interest’ justification and be more upfront about why they publish that kind of stuff – to make a splash, to win brownie points, to sell papers. I will not presume to speak on behalf of the public, except to say that it is surely not in our interests to be looked upon as a fickle mob whose true interests can only be deciphered by those who possess ‘great knowledge’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) The Federalist Papers, 1787-1788: read them here.

(2) Fair and Effective Representation: Debating Electoral Reform and Minority Rights, Mark E Rush and Richard L Engstrom, Rowan & Littlefield, 2001

(3) The Public Philosophy, Walter Lippmann, Little Brown and Co., 1955

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Topics Politics


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