Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Public Interest - a crucial discussion

The Public Interest is NOT what the public is interested in!

What is The Public Interest?

During the heated discussions about media regulation and a proposed Public interest Advocate in Australia over the weeks of March 12 - 21, 2013, the point has been made that there should not be a public interest test for Australian media, in part because no one knows what the public interest is.

The conservative Liberal Party shadow minister for communication Malcolm Turnbull made statements to that effect, while claiming to be a lawyer.

 What is the public interest? (Minister) Conroy couldn’t even tell us what the criteria for public interest was. (ABC Radio Interview)

One would have to suggest that Malcolm Turnbull is not a very good lawyer because the law is driven by the concept of the public interest. All media regulation is driven by the concept that there is a public interest, and it needs to be defended by legally sanctioned institutions lest the excesses of the market be teh only game in town. No one really wants the market to only act in its own self interest.

Here is what Turnbull said in a different place:

... Every single person will have a different view about what is in the public interest. Everyone’s got a different view. Having media mergers dependent on such a subjective, highly political view is really bad law, it’s bad practice and when it’s produced by this Government who’s commitment to media freedom is very very questionable to say the least, it obviously has to be seen for what it is. It is an attempt to regulate the media because they don’t like what you’ve been saying and writing about them.
Is this a basic philosophical issue for you Mr Turnbull and does that mean that if this does get through in the next fortnight that a Coalition government would repeal it?
Well I have no doubt that we would seek to repeal any sort of public interest test on media takeovers. I think this is a bad idea at every level. It’s a bad idea from the point of view of freedom of speech. It’s a bad idea from the point of view of keeping governments out of regulating the media. We want the media to be as free as possible and I can say as a former lawyer who used to practice in the area of broadcasting law these sort of generally worded tests, whether you call it public interest or fit and proper person, are impossible to define. And all they do is end up creating very handsome incomes for the legal profession. So it doesn’t tick any box and it is a classic Stephen Conroy thought bubble. (emphasis added)

To argue this case is to enter the world of the knowingly ignorant. As Malcolm Turnbull surely knows, the public interest is the basis not only for the law, it is also the basis for the entire regulatory apparatus of the state in liberal/social democracies. If it is not the basis for regulation the public interest is purely a theoretical smoke screen that does nothing. If that was to be the case, systems of law and regulation, including policing and justice in general would be inoperable. It is a dangerous game to suggest the public interest cannot be defined and that regulation should be denied because it might inhibit business, or "media freedom."

The Public Interest is not what the public is interested in. Unregulated media in a country such as Australia would give even more of this latter category of what the public is interested in- more socially irrelevant "news", more titillation, more opinion pretending to be news, less reporting...

Everyone benefits from a discussion of The Public Interest. To pretend it is too difficult, undefinable, irrelevant, is to leave everyday life to the cowboys, the criminals and the corrupt.