In all the debates on media ethics that have been raging since the phone hacking scandal broke and the Leveson Inquiry got going, how often have you heard the phrase ‘the public interest’?

Whenever anyone is trying to justify a piece of journalism or inveighing against the iniquities of the press, you can be sure they’ll mention it. But has anyone actually asked the public themselves what they think this public interest is?

That was the question Duncan O’Leary and I set out to address in a report for the Carnegie UK Trust published today, Voicing the Public Interest: Listening to the public on press regulation. The research included a poll of more than 2,000 people to explore public attitudes to the press, regulation and to the public interest.

We weren’t attempting to second-guess Leveson’s forthcoming report or come up with an alternative blueprint for press regulation, but we did hope to highlight what has often been omitted from the debate over recent months – the public dimension.

To start with, we identified a significant trust problem – our polling showed that only one in ten people thought the Sun operated ‘ethically, with due regard to the public interest’, and there were significant minorities expressing the same view for the traditional broadsheets.

Secondly, it’s no easy thing to define the public interest. This is a phrase that gets bandied around all the time and has been recurring like a leitmotif during the Leveson Inquiry. It is also mentioned in a number of legal and ethical contexts and can frequently determine whether something gets published. And yet it is often loosely defined, or not defined at all.

To get closer to establishing a stronger sense of what the public interest is, we came up with a formula that we then tested in our polling. The public interest, we felt, tends to get decided according to three key elements in any news story – what the story is, who it is about, and how the information for it was acquired.

We constructed 90 different scenarios employing these three variables and put them to the public, asking whether a story containing these specific features should be published – and in only 15 cases did at least 50 per cent of the public back publication. That reveals a reluctance to publish that makes the public look considerably more cautious than current norms dictate. It also underlines widespread concerns about the harm that intrusive journalism can do.

We also asked a few basic questions about attitudes to regulation. Who did people think was involved in the debate about the public interest? Who should be involved? And who should be involved when it comes to handling complaints?

A majority of the public didn’t want journalists, editors or newspaper owners involved in drawing up guidelines, but 63 per cent wanted the public to have some role and even more (77 per cent) wanted an independent regulator to (on this question it was possible to choose more than one option).

To adjudicate on complaints, they most liked the idea a regulator funded by but independent of government: 77 per cent backed this option, while 58 per cent backed the idea of a regulator funded by but independent of the newspaper industry.

Our findings led us to three broad conclusions. Firstly, that the public interest should be more clearly defined, potentially using our ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ as a starting point.

Secondly, that the press should become more transparent to become more accountable – consumers should be told exactly how a story was obtained, wherever it is possible to do that without compromising sources; and readers should be given a clearer voice within papers to raise questions and air complaints, for instance through readers’ editors.

Thirdly, that the public should have a stronger voice in press regulation and in determining the public interest – this could be through some kind of consumer panel embedded into the new regulatory architecture.

These modest steps might go some way to repairing the damaged bonds between newspapers and their readers. Any new regulatory system that follows on from the Leveson report needs to have legitimacy and to forge a meaningful connection with the public if it is to be seen as truly safeguarding the public interest.

New Comment