“But it’s in the public interest”. Really?

Abstract: Heads up if you’re in corporate communications – the media have a sneaky weapon…

If I had 5c for every time I had been misquoted in the press, you wouldn’t be reading this. I’d be wallowing on a world cruise, travelling first class, sunning myself on deck, sipping Harvey Wallbangers and collecting cherries in my navel. But I have, and I’m not, and you’re about to be the beneficiary.

It’s been said that I have been shaping public opinion as both a broadcaster and columnist for well over 20 years, but not everything has gone smoothly. Just as I have made comment about public events, I have been the focus of public opinion, most of it entertaining, some of it unjustified and quite hurtful, and as such, I have a renowned love-hate relationship with the media.

So why am I telling you this? Because as someone in a position of influence, just as you are a beacon of inspiration for those around you, you also are a bright light that will attract all forms of attention; and someone needs to tell you when that attention is unwarranted, and what you can do about it.

The phrase to be wary of is “in the public interest”. This is often simply media spin for the phrase “interesting to the public”. The first justifies inquiry and the second sells newspapers. The coalescing and confusion has emerged, in part, through the rise of social media.

Just as social media has been heralded as the future of media, it has, in part brought about the demise of its discipline. Anyone with a smartphone can now take a picture or a video-clip, upload it to their website or Facebook account, and distribute it.

Because the barriers to entry as a disseminator of opinion have virtually melted away and anyone with a smartphone who snaps away at events claims the title of “journalist”, the result has been a shift away from the measured discipline of professional journalism towards an unrestrained feeding frenzy that has stripped away the ethics of journalistic inquiry.

The endemic spread of such phones has made their presence both pervasive and clandestine. As such they are the source of intrusive attention, and have led a redefinition of what is considered “in the public interest”.

Desperate to keep up with the shift in consumer demand, newspapers and magazines have either dipped their toe into the sea of tabloid journalism or simply dived right in. The result has been a blurring of what is “in the public interest” and what is “interesting to the public”.

So, what is the difference? The former is limited to anything that pertains to the prevention or exposure of criminal activity, something that threatens national security or the health and welfare of the public, or something that prevents the public from being misled by an individual or organisation. The latter is anything that helps consumers get their rocks off.

Example: if a high-profile CEO of a bank is indicted for fraud, it’s in the public interest. If the same banker has an affair, it’s simply interesting to a public craving to gorge themselves on tales of lascivious behaviour. The former demands inquiry, the latter is a personal matter and deserves a terse ‘no comment’.

Certain elements of the press try and get around this by saying that someone – even in business – is a ‘public figure’. This suggests that they are either owned by the public or owe the public some measure of gratitude, and therefore intrusion into their private life is justifiable payback. However, even if this argument had some merit, it falls flat by virtue of the fact that if a person is a ‘public figure’, it’s invariably only because the very same press has decided, unilaterally, to anoint them as such.

There are exceptions, of course: self-promoting ‘celebrities’ who wilfully court the press to polish their profile can hardly deny the same press access when they tarnish their own reputation with aberrant behaviour. In politics, people who run for public office are obviously accountable to the public, and characters who claim to represent the ‘people’, must be prepared to allow the ‘people’ access to them.

However, even the most obdurate, beguiling, attention-seeking political figures are entitled to some degree of privacy. After all – and here’s the twist – if we don’t temper our intrusion into their lives we risk appearing completely shallow and rapacious ourselves.

So what does this mean for you? It means that if someone from the media ever approaches you, and starts digging into your personal life, ask them if it’s in the public interest or simply interesting to the public. If they flinch, you’ll know they know you’re savvy, and they’ll proceed with caution. If they claim ‘public interest’, demand how. If they can’t, then say, “it’s a personal matter, and so I am not obliged to provide any comment”.

If they can, then I’m afraid you’re on your own.

Originally published in the July 2012 edition of Leadership