What does public interest mean to you?

2011-11-07 13:46

English writer GK Chesterton is credited with having said that “journalism largely consists of saying ‘Lord Jones is Dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive”.

It is a rather harsh indictment on our craft, but it is true in more ways than many journalists care to admit.
Happily, consumers seem to realise that this Lord Jones’s life must have been of some worth, hence their taking time to read or listen to the tale of the poor man’s demise.

Frankly, I like my media that way.

If we were to go by some people’s puritanical understanding of what the press is all about, we would lead dreary lives and produce even drearier media.

There is a school of thought that holds the view that news must always and only be “in the public interest”, which they take to mean must have a direct bearing on their lives and the decisions they make.

That in the classic sense is what media strives to do.

But a lot more of what turns out in our media would fail the “how does it and why should it matter to me personally” test.

Take the death of a certain leader in some North African state. By the purist standard, the death of Muammar Gaddafi should not make news in South Africa because it is not likely to affect your everyday life.

In the past week, we got to know that a certain baby born in some Pacific Ocean island state became the seven billionth human being to grace our planet since they started counting.

The media is not just about personal utility. It does help to read the “seven ways to save money this Christmas” kind of story, but that is not all that human beings are about.

The human condition includes being curious and sometimes plain old nosey. It includes things that have no practical use to us, but are nevertheless interesting.

The interest in Lord Jones’s death, sad or unlamented as it may be, is stuff that is, I suspect, hard-wired in us.

The media is useful when it appeals to both what is interesting to the public and what is in the public interest.

There is no question that these are two different concepts.

Sometimes what is of interest to the public does not have inherent public interest as defined by the purists.

The quest in newsrooms, therefore, is to find the right balance while minimising harm, invasion of privacy and injury to dignity while telling the story.

It is common law that the rights to these diminish progressively relative to the public profile one holds.

Which brings me to a certain minister who some can accuse of bringing a certain first name into disrepute.

While there is a clamour that what he did was a matter between him and his wife and family, it is interesting to note that he does not necessarily share this view.

Unlike his supporters, the minister acknowledges that his behaviour is not just a matter between two adults, hence the apology to his party, government and family.

While he was ready to take City Press to court to stop the story being written, the minister was happy to speak to other newspapers about his “ordeal”.

Even his good friend and comrade, Zizi Kodwa, thought it important to speak publicly about the matter.

But even if he did not, being a Cabinet minister in a government that preaches abstinence, being faithful and using condoms makes you a legitimate target of the media if you are found not practising what you preach.

Not that we disbelieve the honourable minister when he says his liaison with the young woman happened
when he was separated from his lovely wife.

But even if he were not, it would have been a case of being a hypocrite – and that is a story that is always in fashion.

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