Publish and be damned!

More often than not, the clash between the right for privacy and public interest leads to grey areas.

F1 chief Max Mosley won £60,000 in damages from the News Of The World over breach of privacy.
F1 chief Max Mosley won £60,000 in damages from the News Of The World over breach of privacy.

Many an editor all over the world has been faced with the dilemma best described by the dictum 'Publish and be damned!' Others just make it their motto and live by it. What is quite interesting is that the origin of the phrase is attributed to a particular Duke of Wellington when replying to a courtesan who threatened to shame him by publishing her memoirs and his letters.

The recent publication of e-mail exchanges between Labour leader, Joseph Muscat and an RTK journalist has given rise to an interesting controversy. Labour claimed Muscat was the victim of an invasion of privacy by the publication of information obtained by illicit means. The journalist responsible for the 'scoop' insisted that the publication of the contents of these e-mails was in the public interest.

Journalists do not normally defend their actions by repeating the Duke of Wellington's retort but prefer to insist that their decision to publish private information about public figures is motivated by the public interest. This basically means that the publication serves the interest of the public. One cannot assume that whatever is published must be automatically in the public interest, but on the other hand it is very difficult to find clear and unambiguous parameters on the conditions that are a 'sine qua non' for a publication to be in the public interest. Whether the revelation of some particular information is in the public interest or not is often subjective: there are no hard and fast rules that can determine whether the 'public interest' claim is justified or not.

There is no doubt that many of the best journalistic scoops all over the world are the result of decisions taken by editors to publish information based on leaked or stolen documents. Joseph Muscat's attempt to distinguish between leaked and stolen documents is incredibly tenuous and is, for practical purposes, of no consequence to the journalist who obtains the information.

Newspapers of both the Nationalist and the Labour stables have been publishing stolen or leaked documents probably since the two political parties started their activities in the media. I have no doubt that most of these actions passed the 'public interest' test without any difficulty.

Recent controversial scoops in the independent press include the premature publication in 'The Times' of the charges that Cyrus Engerer was due to be accused with in court - a decision that the paper insisted was in the public interest. The publication of a video in which PBS chairman was captured on film in an embarrassing display at the Eurovision Song Contest's after-party in Dusseldorf was also claimed to have been in the public interest - a claim that cannot be easily dismissed, irrespective of the fact that the PBS Chairman was the unfortunate victim of a malicious plot.

The Labour Party's claim that the publication of Joseph Muscat's e-mails was not in the public interest is not tenable. Even more ludicrous is the claim that there has been an invasion of Muscat's privacy and the depiction of the incident as an indication that in Malta basic human rights are being surreptitiously eroded by some sinister official or quasi-official entity.

Revelations on the local Maltese media pale into insignificance when compared to what happens abroad. 'Wikileaks', for example, has published submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous  sources, and whistleblowers. These include a number of significant documents which have become front-page news items on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, corruption in Kenya, the Guantanamo Bay 'facility' and thousands of U.S. State department diplomatic cables. All over the world newspapers of high repute reproduced this information and commented editorially on it: whether the relevant documents were leaked or stolen, was obviously irrelevant.

Indeed the much publicised comment made to a US ambassador by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi on the limited talent in the pool from which he had to pick the Cabinet, became public as a result of a US diplomatic message being released by 'Wikileaks.' No one complained of the illegal way that the information was obtained. Neither did the PM claim an invasion of privacy.

Muscat's e-mail exchange was certainly not of a personal nature - it gave an interesting insight on his relationship with the media, and his use of insiders to know what is going on within newsrooms and to influence them. This is, of course, part of the way the game is played even though it is never acknowledged by any of the two political parties. Knowing tacitly that this sort of thing is probably happening all the time is quite different from having a written indication on how it actually happens. Hence the public interest.

In a recent study on the issue, - 'Privacy, Probity and the Public Interest' - Stephen Whittle and Glenda Cooper from the Reuters Institute at Oxford University insist that there is an important distinction between 'the public interest' and 'the public's interest':  whatever captures the attention of readers, listeners and viewers is not necessarily in the public interest. A point made in this study - that could be of interest to Malta's no-holds-barred bloggers - is that while many regard 'what happens on blogs or social network sites such as Facebook as semi-private, journalists see it as information in the public domain.'

According to the authors, 'sex and sexuality, health, family life, personal correspondence and finance' continue to be spheres essentially viewed as private 'except where public money is concerned'.

Publishing lurid details of sexual peccadilloes or perversions of public figures may well arouse the public's interest but such publications do not necessarily pass the 'public interest' test. The case of the former president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), Max Mosley, is one that proves this point. The now defunct 'News of the World' exposed Mosley's involvement in a sadomasochistic sex act involving several female prostitutes by releasing a video of the incident recorded by one of the women (who was paid for doing so by the newspaper) and by publishing details of the incident. Mosley sued the paper and was awarded a record £60,000 in damages.

There was considerable interest in the case all over the world but the story was undoubtedly an invasion of privacy that could not be considered to be in the public interest by any stretch of the imagination.

However, more often than not, the clash between the right for privacy and public interest leads to grey areas. Whether the press should be given the benefit of the doubt is also a moot point.


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@Michael Falzon Allow me a somewhat lengthy comment, based on this line: "while many regard 'what happens on blogs or social network sites such as Facebook as semi-private, journalists see it as information in the public domain.'" But first, to assuage Mr. Vella's fears, I am no "taliban"; it is with great respect that I make the comment. The Public Domain -- so misunderstood and abused in the Maltese media. It seems to me that, while we live by the Rule of Law -- or so we are led to believe -- when it comes to Maltese journalism, it looks more like the (no-)rule of the wild west, with an attiitude of, I-publish-it-because-I-can . Violation of Copyright is rampant among Maltese journalists. The impression I get from reading the online media is that, during their education they either skipped classes on Copyright, or that the subject is lacking in the curriculum. Either way, they are missing an important element and thereby opening themselves up to litigation -- just a few weeks ago, the editor of a Maltese daily was fined for infringement of Copyright: he published, without permission, photographs downloaded from Facebook. Facebook, and other such media, are not the "public domain". They are publicly accessible, but not publicly owned. Copying and reproducing anything published on these media, without permission, is a viloation of Copyright, or, in common language, theft (of intellectual property). The Malta Copyright Act affords protection to all types of intellectual works, including letters/e-mails. The Public Domain consists of works whose Copyright has expired. In Malta, it is for the life of the work's creator plus 70 years. Copyright comes into effect automatically, from the moment that the work is created. To acquire protection, there is no need to register the work, whether written, published (including on the Internet), photographed, printed, broadcasted or recorded. Jospeh Muscat's e-mails, as well as Sabrina Agius', and Fr. Joe Borg's and the other gentlemen's, are all protected by the Act. Publishing them without permission, for any reason, is illegal. No editor, has the right to breach Copyright, regardless of what the editor thinks about the contents' value to the public. No one has the right to commission a wrong even if it is in the pursuit of justice, or the public interest. Maltese editors and journalists cannot hide behind Section VI of the Press Act (which protects their sources). This protection does not include a license to violate applicable laws. So, the question is not simply about the editor's decision on whether it's in the public interest (or, of interest to the public), it is about the legality of publishing someone's work. The most ridiculous statement that was made, in the Muscat-Agius incident, came from Mr. Nathaniel Attard -- head of news at NET -- who said that, the e-mails were "procured in a way that did not breach the Law". Pure nonsense! But to his credit, he is in 'good' company.
Luke Camilleri
This is how Dr. Gonzi deals with Journalists... he only lets HIS journalists cover him, even to stooping so low as to choosing only those Journalists that put him in good Light! One of these journalists was at the time employed with RTK... and found herself later "conveniently" with PBS , like other journalists from Net News who also ended up in PBS News room! Diskriminazzjoni Il-Gimgha li ghadha kemm intemmet irregistrat ghal darb’ohra att ta’ arroganza min-naha tal-Gvern Nazzjonalista. Diversi sezzjonijiet ta’ l-istampa lokali gew maghzula biex jattendu dik li giet deskritta mill-Prim Ministru Lawrence Gonzi bhala laqgha ta’ diskussjoni mal-‘backbenchers’ Nazzjonalisti, filwaqt li l-bqija tal-media giet diskriminata u ma thallietx tattendi. Il-laqgha “sigrieta” saret fil-Girgenti u minnha, fost ohrajn, gew imwarrba anke l-gurnalisti ta’ l-orizzont. Il-Prim Ministru ghogbu li ghal din il-laqgha jaghzel biss gurnalisti min-Net TV, mill-gurnal in-Nazzjon u minn Radju 101, mill-gurnali The Times u Il-Gens u mill-istazzjon RTK li hu r-radju tal-Knisja. L-intenzjoni li f’din il-laqgha la tkun prezenti l-istampa li tappartjieni lill-Moviment tal-Haddiema u li din l-istess sezzjoni ta’ l-istampa ma tkunx taf x’inghad u x’sar, jidher mill-attitudni mehuda minn kull min kien prezenti. Meta ntemmet il-laqgha, il-Prim Ministru telaq minn fuq il-post bla kliem u bla sliem. Il-gurnalisti “maghzulin” wkoll ma taw cans lil hadd ikellimhom, filwaqt li l-persuna fl-Ufficcju tal-Prim Ministru responsabbli mill-media, inqas kellu d-dicenza jaghti kumment naha jew ohra lill-gurnalisti li thallew umiljati barra. Minkejja dak li qal il-Prim Ministru f’konferenza ta’ l-ahbarijiet nhar is-Sibt li ghadda, hemm dubju kemm kienet biss laqgha ta’ diskussjoni mal-backbenchers Nazzjonalisti. Kieku kien hekk, x’sens hemm li tiddiskrimina bejn membri tal-media? Xi skop kien hemm li l-gurnalisti “maghzulin” anqas biss ikollhom cans ikellmu lil gurnalisti shabhom “mhux maghzulin”. Bhalma gara f’okkazjonijiet ohra, semplici stqarrija mid-Dipartiment ta’ l-Informazzjoni kienet taqdi l-htigiet tal-media kollha biex twassal l-informazzjoni lill-pubbliku. Nhar is-Sibt il-Prim Ministru ddeskriva l-istorja tal-“laqgha sigrieta fil-Girgenti” bhala tal-Mickey Mouse u sostna li hu jaghzel opportunitajiet fejn jghid li jrid jiltaqa’ ma’ xi grupp partikolari. Hazin! Din l-istqarrija tibda taghmel sens biss meta l-Prim Ministru jsejjah il-grupp shih mhux bhal fil-kaz tal-Girgenti fejn parti biss mill-grupp tal-media lokali gie ppreferut. Hu l-mod kif ipprova jbengilha l-Prim Ministru li hu tal-Mickey Mouse. Din id-diskriminazzjoni bejn il-membri tal-media lokali u l-arroganza murija ma’ membri tal-media m’ghandha qatt tkun ittollerata. Imma l-arroganza tant saret taghmel parti minn dan il-gvern li sahansitra issa anke wasal biex jipprova jumilja gurnalisti quddiem gurnalisti ohrajn
Damned by the labour taliban, yes, most probably. But what about the nationalists mafiosi, don't they have anything to comment here?
Mr Falzon, you published this blog entry and you're going to be "damned" by the usual 3-4 Labour taliban.