Public interest is not a well defined term. It is a powerful one, though, as it invokes a justification that suggests it overrides one or many individual interests. The good of the many outweighing the good of the few.
Employing such a tactic naturally carries risks. First is the suggestion that the party invoking public interest is capable of judging what is in the common good, as well as placing itself in a lofty standard it will be demanded to be followed. Second, as stated in a 2012 report, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW) noted the natural suspicion that follows any party that, in claiming to act in the public interest, is actually doing so for the benefit of its own interests.* These risks have been intensified by the increased scrutiny and cynicism that has grown in the information age.
The framework the ICAEW provided later in that report, by which parties can be assessed on their public interest qualifications, is certainly respectable, but represents a problem I believe we have in regards to the approach taken towards this subject. While we focus on and place high expectations on higher profile cases of public interest, we, who often act as judges through social media or other democratic processes, don’t question enough our own understanding of public interest beyond how an event affects our individual interests.
By this, I ask these questions. First, whether those active on public interest hold to themselves the same standard they expect of others. Second, if they define the public interest simply as one that satisfies all individual interests, especially their own, no matter whether any of those individuals consider the welfare of others in their decisions. Third, if and by how much they are willing to accept some measure of risk or cost if it means a significant benefit to the public at large. And finally, how important is it to support actions that could potentially enhance our well being and broaden our capabilities as opposed to focusing on their potential or even speculative negative impacts of an issue, no matter the degree of probability?
The point is that the reflexive response towards issues revolving public interest has become defensive rather than progressive. Too much attention is being paid to protecting personal isolated interests instead of inviting and enabling discoveries that could possibly advance our society. As our communities grow larger, the scope of issues involved also naturally expand, but the public interest process should then evolve to embrace greater study and attention, not degrade into a means to seek reasons for rejecting proposals that involve change.
Of course, issues that carry a great potential impact, positive or negative, that could affect a broad range of people and/or the environment demand greater attention, but that does not mean that the party central to the matter should be the only one expected to carry the pubic interest standard. Those who have a greater power to affect the public interest have a greater responsibility toward addressing and protecting the community. However, in a democracy by which we all have some measure of influence towards public interest decisions, we each need to learn, think, and judge through a public interest perspective as well.
Public interest exists not as a weapon to be directed at what we perceive as potential threats to our individual liberties. It is an idea by which we can learn to explore, enable, and utilize our combined abilities to expand our collective potential to the benefit of everyone.