Public interest and what interests the public

British Lord Northcliffe got it right when he said that ‘news is what someone, somewhere does not want printed. The rest is advertising’.

We live in an age awash with news and information. The recent raids on the ABC and journalists homes have reignited the Australian debate about the ethics of leaks. The resignation of Britain’s Ambassador to the USA Kim Darroch reveal the damage that leaks can cause: the fall of a seasoned British diplomat and the souring of the relationship between two strong allies.

The issues are threefold: 1) the right of the public to know, 2) the right of the leaker to leak, 3) the right of the publisher to publish. In a wider moral sense, the debate is about what Jewish tradition calls ‘lashon hara’ or bad speech. Communication of the truth is still ‘lashon hara’ if it does not have a definite purpose like preventing harm to another. Jewish ethicist, The Chafetz Chaim, has explored at length the exceptions to ‘lashon hara’ such as advising a potential employer of damaging information you have about a job candidate.

Interestingly, the Talmud reminds us that these are always three potential victims of ‘lashon hara’, the transmitter, the recipient and the target.

Translating this into popular language there are good leaks and there are bad leaks. A good leak is often described as the disclosure of information that expands public understanding of an issue of public interest without harming anybody. It may also be seen to be good (even if it harms someone) if it protects the public from crime or harm. A bad leak is one that is harmful in that it doesn’t add to the public understanding of a public issue or violates a commitment you have as a board member, employee or friend. I would question though whether your commitment to an organisation or even a friend supersedes your responsibility to God and the truth.

The principle of public interest is also highly questionable. There is, it has been said, public interest and what interests the public. Jewish ethics would make a distinction between protecting the public and catering to its interests: The ‘tzibbur’ or community interest often trumps personal interest such as personal mourning not being allowed to intrude into the communal celebration of Shabbat. What interests the public is often the sensationalist or the prurient and the Halacha fiercely protects the rights of an individual to their privacy. The Talmud refers to ‘hezek reiyah’ the damage caused by intrusive eyes and Balaam praised the Jewish people for not being snoops and looking into their neighbour’s tent, prying into their personal affairs. Thus the commentators gloss on the verse: ‘how good are your tents Jacob, your homes Israel’, that Balaam saw that their entrances were deliberately placed not to face each other.

Kim Darroch’s resignation raises several ethical issues: 1) Who leaked the private confidential document; 2) who published it and 3) the public right to this information. It has been suggested the leaker and the journalist who broke the news were motivated by their own political motives. The journalist who reported the leak, Isabel Oakeshott is a strong Brexit backer and an ally of the Brexit party leader; Nigel Farage who is Britain’s leading champion of Mr Trump. Isabel Oakeshott should not only question her own motivation but also whether her disclosure is not a case of a bad leak. What exactly do the British public and the rest of us gain by being privy to these secret assessments of a British ambassador? Surely there are things far more important than the dissemination of information we could all live happily without – whether we approve or reject the actual assessments of the mercurial President Trump and his administration. Things like the 40-year career of a distinguished diplomat and the unnecessary pain and humiliation to his and his family.

The Torah, from its inception, warns of the dangers of the Tree of Knowledge. Not everything is worth knowing and sometimes even a little bit of knowledge can cause a lot of damage…

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.