The Only Way is Ethics: Our nose for news has not gone sour. In the context of bullying, Rebecca Adlington’s story is relevant

There is a difference between what’s in the public interest and what interests the public

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A lot of guff has been written about Rebecca Adlington and her nose recently, as well as a few more perceptive pieces. Plenty of people have nose jobs; others don’t like their conks but leave them as they are. It tends not to be a subject of national debate.  Should things be different for an Olympic swimmer?

The ethical merits of breaking a story about a medical procedure, even a cosmetic one, are arguable. That said, rhinoplasty has fairly obvious consequences so any potential intrusion is relatively limited. 

But the question posed by a reader of The Independent was whether our coverage, effectively reporting on reports, was appropriate. In the reader’s view the story was not newsworthy, and following up the initial speculation just perpetuated a tawdry debate about a young woman’s appearance.

This is the type of occasion when serious people stroke their chins and remark sagely: “of course, there is a difference between what’s in the public interest and what interests the public”. Correct. But there is also a difference between insight and pompous platitudes, which the same people don’t always spot.

A lot of material we see in the media does not serve the “public interest” insofar as it doesn’t expose crime or hypocrisy or serve an obvious societal need. But a public interest justification is not a blanket prerequisite to publication: it only comes into play when there would otherwise be a breach of proper standards. There is also a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

In the case of Rebecca Adlington – a famous sportsperson who has appeared on reality television and publicly talked about her physical appearance – it is not improper to repeat material that is already established in the public domain and set it in the context of a debate about the potential impact of bullying.

In short, it may not be the most important news of the day but nor should it be off-limits. Mind you, if the story turned out to be wrong, we’d all have egg on our faces whatever the size of our noses.

Keeping notes in the newsroom

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced a consultation in respect of new guidance for the media on the Data Protection Act.

The Act is concerned with the way in which information about citizens is collected and used by corporations or institutions. Thanks to the Leveson inquiry – and the behaviour that precipitated it – the Act’s interaction with the media has gained prominence that was probably never anticipated.

Indeed, the Information Commissioner (the keeper of the Act) is producing guidance precisely because Lord Justice Leveson recommended he should. And in principle there is nothing wrong with trying to explain in plain language what a piece of esoteric legislation actually means. The current commissioner’s predecessor helped the Press Complaints Commission to produce a guidance note in 2005.

But problems arise when laws, codes and even guides do not take account of how the media actually works. 

One of the fads since Leveson – evident in the ICO’s draft guidance – has been to imagine that whenever there is any public interest debate in the newsroom a record will be kept. Yet there are countless discussions every day about stories which might have a public interest implication. In the heat of deadlines, the idea of jotting down minutes of every such conversation is fanciful.

Ethics and compliance are vital to proper journalism but they cannot be divorced from reality.

Will Gore is deputy managing editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard Twitter: @willjgore

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