A few months ago, I attended a Rotary function and fortunately heard a talk by Hon. Tim Smith QC, Chair, Accountability Round Table (ART). What stood out in his presentation was the power to ‘the People’ that comes from the ‘public trust principle’.
Since then I’ve had occasions to talk with Tim Smith on why this principle is so important in a democratic society. And, how this principle works for human flourishing towards the common good of that society – recognising this is the primary moral purpose of ‘why’ democratic society exists.
Its only now I’ve noticed the subtle difference between the ‘public interest principle’, as exhorted by many politicians, journalists and opinion makers – and another phrase; the ‘public trust principle’.
In a submission to the Victoria government, the ART states, “the guiding legal and ethical principle applicable to the reform of … of government and its spending of public funds is, as it is for all decisions by government and parliamentarians, the ‘public trust principle’ – that those we entrust with power to exercise on our behalf (i.e. legislature, the judiciary, the justice system, public servants, and Auditors-General) will always prioritise the public interest over their own or others’, private interests.”
Under the ‘public trust principle’ It seems that proven perpetrators who breach the principle can be subjected to the full extent of the law.
On the other hand, when AMEP explores ethical frameworks driving media agendas, values and narrative in Australia, we are seduced and comforted by references to the ‘public interest’. Over time I’ve tried to reconcile expressions of this great concept. The more you mess with it, the more you feel it is misused, misinformed, misunderstood, and useless in helping to form a flourishing Australia, for the common good of all Australians.
For example, The Australian Press Council in its Statement of General Principles, in an explanatory note defines ‘public interest’ as, “Sufficiently in the public interest” – the necessary level of justification in the public interest is proportionate to the gravity of the potential breach of the Principles. Relevant factors to consider may include, for example, the importance in the public interest of:
- Ensuring everyone has genuine freedom of expression and access to reliable information;
- Protecting and enhancing independent and vigorous media; public safety and health; due administration of justice and government, personal privacy, and national security;
- Exposing or preventing crime, dishonesty and serious misconduct or incompetence (especially by public figures).
My questions now, in respect of this explanation, are;
- Is this construction strong enough to facilitate human flourishing for the common good of Australians, particularly those who are voiceless?
- How will it effectively call account those to whom we, the sovereign People of Australia, have entrusted vast power, influence and wealth to distribute?
For those who are interested in this subject, which is critical to the sustained flourishing of Australian society, a comparison of the position of the APC and MEAA code of ethics is instructive. Even more, is an investigation of the Corporate ethical frameworks of the influential media organisations.
Maybe, it’s time for synergistic dialogue between the ART, Australian Press Council and MEAA to facilitate stronger codes of journalistic ethics for journalists, and to inform public discourse in a more integrated way. But we need to remember that it is only through generosity of heart, mind and deed that this synergy can blossom into true flourishing.