“The public interest.” What do those words mean, particularly when used by media organisations in their own defence, or when lobbying Governments for greater freedoms? The question occurs to me as a result of this entirely reasonable Australian Press Council adjudication, which forms part of the continuing controversies link  concerning The West Australian – the wild, wild journal of the wild wild west.

The latest adjudication is a fairly simple case – or so you would think. The West Australian got fundamental facts wrong in a story about the hospital system and refused to correct. As the Press Council says, “The newspaper’s actions compromised its legitimate attempt to air a matter of obvious public concern.”

Inarguable, you would think, but that hasn’t stopped the West Australian lodging an appeal against the decision. Their defence? You guessed it – writing stories about inadequate health services is in the “public interest” and this means that the errors “were immaterial to the issue”.

Oh, really? The West Australian must take the public for fools.

The words “the public interest”, used in this way, become weasel words, full of piss, wind and self interest.

Successive generations of media moguls have argued for freedom of the media, because of the public interests involved. Our own time is no exception. Our leading media organizations earlier this year clubbed together to form Australia’s Right to Know, which has commissioned an independent audit of the state of media freedom in Australia.

Admirable, but as the Australia Privacy Foundation has pointed out in its submission:

The media are also heavily involved in commercial activity unrelated to any ‘public interest’ role, and much of their editorial output is in the area of ‘infotainment’ or pure entertainment, which can make few if any claims to special protection or privileges founded on a ‘fourth estate’ role. We also hope that the audit, and the Right to Know campaign, can avoid overly simplistic characterization of the relationship between governments and the media…the relationship cannot be reduced to a simple story of good and brave journalists fighting repressive government censorship. Press and media interests have often enthusiastically cooperated with Government efforts to mould public opinion and have often received benefits from doing so…an appropriate degree of humility, would be welcome.

I hope the Privacy Foundation isn’t holding its breath waiting for the humility.

Freedom of the media, so far as media corporations are concerned, means freedom for them to do as they wish. They are slower to defend the ability of individual journalists to write as they wish, let alone for the public to have direct access to the ability to publish.

New media changes this. A thousand blogs bloom, and now just about anyone can say anything – but this kind of freedom of speech has not been embraced by mainstream media. Rather, they rubbish it. Witness News Limited’s sensitivity to criticism in the blogosphere.

Every editor would claim to want their publication talked about around the water cooler. But when those conversations happen in public, on the web, they hate it. The notional but safely invisible readers chatting around the water cooler are characterized as “mainstream Australians” – the nice friendly public whose right to know the media casts itself as defending. But Bloggers! They are “cannibals” on the mainstream media, academics, w-nkers and wannabes, and so forth and so on. The abuse is heaped on.

Journalism academic Jay Rosen has pointed out that the famous part of the United States constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press was originally proposed, composed and codified to protect not the freedom of journalists to report, but the freedom of citizens to meet, speak, be informed and publish reports.

When it comes to the citizen’s right to be heard, the media can be both problem and solution. Too often, I think the very media organizations who complain about lack of freedom of speech are the first to bully non-media participants in public life.

The media are just one way of giving expression to freedom of speech – vitally important, yes, but not the whole box and dice, and not an unqualified blessing.

It’s hard to imagine that the West’s appeal against the Press Council decision can succeed. If it did, it would mean that any media organization could raise any issue in the public realm, whether or not it gets its facts right, and get off scot free because of “the public interest”.

But more important than this single case is that those who bang on about freedoms and public interests need to become a bit more careful about how they use the words. The concepts are too important to be used so shallowly.

What do you think? Comment at the Media Free-For-All.