A run on the Northern Rock bank in the UK this week got me thinking about ‘the public interest’ again, especially after Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England told a House of Commons select committee that he would have preferred to give covert aid to Northern Rock, without the public being aware of the Bank’s intervention, but that would be illegal.
Most of the public relations codes of ethics that I am aware of charge practitioners to act ‘in the public interest’. But what exactly is that? From his comments, Mervyn King seemed to infer that the public would have been better served and panic avoided if they had been able to deal with things secretly – but is avoiding panic (or publicity) ‘in the public interest’?
When we lightly touched on this great big question a few posts ago (in the comments), I dug out a really good paper from Alex Messina* which looks at public relations, public interest and persuasion. He suggests (and I paraphrase) that because ‘the public interest’ is ultimately decided at the ballot box, no third party can decipher ahead of that vote what the ‘public interest’ will be, as the ultimate arbiter in a democratic system as to the nature of public interest has to be the government of the time – until the moment the voters chuck them out because they got it horribly wrong.
Philosophers, political and social scientists have been debating and suggesting definitions of ‘the public interest’ even longer than public relations has been debating its own mot juste – and there still is no agreed definition.
We can all make assumptions about the public interest, but they would inevitably be based on our own values and standards, cultures and paradigms or based on standards cloned from another public, bringing us back to the ambiguity Anne was talking about a post or two ago. Which practitioner is acting in the public interest – the one who advocates on behalf of the pro-abortion lobby or the one who acts for the anti-abortion lobby? The practitioner who operates for the oil companies or the one who acts for the wind farm?
Then move online. Look at the publics that exist there, many with very large populations. The viral Shift Happens that Heather signposted has the interesting factlet that if myspace was a country it would be the eighth largest in the world. What actions or inactions are in the public interest of that community or will a differential concept of ‘the public interest’ emerge for online and off line publics? What if an online community like myspace takes umbrage over something happening off line? Will we have community diplomats and ambassadors from the offline communities seeking space at the UN to make sure their public interest is served?
And if public interest is determined at the ballot box, how will it be determined by a public that does not have a ballot box?
Such a question might seem as if it needs no answer and it might appear far-fetched, but disparities are already appearing. For example, here in New Zealand, there is some draft electoral finance legislation on the table. Should it be passed in its present form, I would, come election time, be severely restricted as to what I could say and spend as part of a ‘public’ making my voice heard. That ‘public’ could be a charity, a political party, a pressure group or simply a bunch of neighbours wanting to protest about the lack of street cleaning. But these restrictions would not, as far as I can see, carry over into the virtual world. How would that be ‘in the public interest’? If I am right (and I would stress here am no lawyer so I could be completely barking) then what is my ethical position as a practitioner were I to help a public make their voices legally heard online during the election period, knowing that to do the same thing off line would be illegal? If the ultimate determinant of public interest is the ballot box, is the public interest served by facilitating advocacy for voices that would otherwise go unheard? In which case is it ethical or unethical for the government as arbiter of public interest to legislates against such expression?
Post-election, the practitioner appears before the association’s ethics committee, prepared for a good slapping, but how is the ethics committee going to judge the situation? How will they determine what was and what wasn’t ‘in the public interest’?
The fact is there are many different publics – not one great big nebulous one. The complexity of our humanity means varying standards of beliefs and behaviours, all of which cultivate other types of ‘public interest’. Should we therefore simply put our hands up, be honest, transparent and ethical and suggest that, realistically, we can only operate on behalf of ‘a public’s interest’ or even ‘several publics’ interest’, with careful regard for the greater societal good and – as the doctors say – first, doing no harm.
And maybe we need to look at the wording on a few codes of ethics? What do you think?