Compliments of Newscorps
by Mary W Maxwell
Abstract: The entity known as the media is one that anyone can join. There is no “profession” of journalism in the sense that a profession requires years of acquiring specialist knowledge. There is no obligation to adhere to the ethics of journalism; it is purely voluntary. The published codes of ethics reflect some sense of what the public wants, and also act as PR for publishers.
Gumshoe is running a series on the potential criminality of media. We have shown that a journalist, like anyone else, can commit a crime — but it has to be a crime that is on the books for everyone.
For example, Part 1 discussed media persons committing the crime of incitement to murder; Part 2, the crime of perverting the course of justice. Part 4 will talk about the crime of treason. Here in Part 3 we detour to talk about ethics, not crime.
People seem to think ethics is a form of restraint on behavior. Indeed it is. So is etiquette, so is custom, so are religious precepts. But none of those can be enforced by law. A court can only apply public law, as in criminal cases, or private law between two litigants, say in a breach-of-contract case.
One of the rules, which I won’t go into here, is standard across all professional ethics: it tells the member of the profession that he must not use his special position to get a benefit that others cannot get. A stockbroker should not engage in insider trading, a doctor should not prescribe morphine for himself.
Another standard ethical rule is: don’t accept a gift if it will be seen to compromise the integrity of your work. You are doing scientific research in botany for an agribusiness company and you get a triple salary? We are bound to think your laboratory conclusions are doctored up to suit the profits of the company.
Those general rules are seen in standard codes of ethics for journalists, for example: “Do not use your special ability to spread the story to help one side (in exchange for a payment).”
Journalistic Ethics Not Enforceable
Today it is “the media,” not just “the press” that we think of in terms of journalist ethics. That could mean all of TV, radio, and maybe the movies, as well as things that appear as the printed word. Nevertheless journalistic ethics were set out by writers of newspaper articles and editorials.
In days of old, the codes of newspapers used to list certain things as forbidden, such as going to the home of a victim of crime (or an accused person) to grab a family photograph. These are not mentioned anymore, I presume because such rules are honored in the breach on such a regular basis.
One still sees rules about not plagiarizing, not revealing the names of children who were sexually abused, not performing “chequebook” journalism, not failing to disclose one’s own involvement in a matter, etc.
This causes us to ask: Who would enforce the code? For a long time journalists were probably self-enforcing those rules out of the need to maintain their reputation. If you got caught in a conflict of interest, for example, it might ruin your credibility forever.
But there is no legal enforcement. If you write about someone in a defamatory way you may be accused of committing commit libel. The aggrieved party could sue you for libel – no one needs a code of ethics for that — it is a matter of law. But chequebook journalism is not a crime.
There are of course many people who go into journalism as their life’s work who aim to follow – and wish their colleagues would diligently follow – high ideals.
There is a group called Society of Professional Journalists. They say “Members believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” Here are some of their instructions to members:
Be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.
Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.
Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.
Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.
Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.
The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
Do not pay for access to news.
Deny favored treatment to advertisers.
Resist pressure to influence coverage.
Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.”
Sound very intelligent and do-able, but it won’t be done by those who don’t subscribe to it. It won’t be done in a million years by the Rupert Murdochs of this world.
The Australian Press Council
At the moment there is a statutory body in Australia that purports to have a hand in keeping the press up to certain standards. It depends on complaints by the public. When a person complains, the APC can decide to deal with the matter or not.
Its “dealing with the matter” consists of listening to both parties and “adjudicating.” Of course the APC cannot enforce its decisions, but it might give satisfaction to a complainant to hear this board say that he or she was indeed wronged. The APC will order that a correction be printed.
I doubt that the APC would engage on a confrontation with the mass media when they engage on horrendous lies about terrorism, or even when they hurt an accused person.
As reported in Gumshoe, there were immense insults of Martin Bryant published in the Murdoch press in September 2015 (including about his “sex life”). One citizen, Keith Noble, made a lengthy submission to the Australia Press Council asking for action in the case. It certainly “fit the bill” for action, but was dismissed by the APC.
An Even Bigger “Council”?
I now quote an article by Elise Scott, “Australia Press Council on Notice,” dated March 20, 2012, at theaustralian.com.au:
The Australian Press Council (APC) says despite disagreeing with the report’s recommendation for a government-funded News Media Council, it still doesn’t do well enough it it’s role of regulating the nation’s print media. [Too right.]
At a public forum in Sydney, chair of the APC, Professor Julian Disney, said the body has “ludicrously inadequate resources” and requires an additional $1 million and more staff to function at its desired standards.
The Gillard government commissioned inquiry, headed by Ray Finkelstein, recommended a government funded body that covered all media including online platforms, be set up:
“to set journalistic standards for the news media in consultation with the industry, and handle complaints made by the public when those standards are breached.”
Me Finkelstein said the current regulatory regimes for both print and broadcast media had failed to achieve the degree of “accountability desirable in a democracy”.
Professor Disney, said the answer was not creating a new government-funded body, but strengthening the existing APC. “I believe that a lot and maybe enough can be achieved by properly utilising our existing powers, if we have the resources to do it,’ he said. [No way, pardon me.]
Editor-at-large at The Australian, Paul Kelly, told the forum the report was set up by a Labor government, using the media scandal in Britain as an excuse, to cut back the media because the government was “deeply resentful of the media criticism of their government.”
Mr Kelly said he strongly supports the ACP [well he would, wouldn’t he] and opposes a government-funded regulatory body. “We need to be careful in particular that the answer we provide; that is the medicine is not worse than the disease … ” he told the forum. “The media by definition is an imperfect product, always has been and remains so today.” [Who could disagree?]
Sydney Morning Herald editor-in-chief, Peter Fray, agreed Australian media does not need government interference. “We live in a market economy … Let the market decide,” he said.”
And there you have it. Let the people decide if they want to read garbage, and have their lives endangered by such false media reporting as the Bella Vista incident (not to mention 9-11). Let the market pressure the media to be “ethical.”
In the meantime we should be careful to expect nothing in the way of ethics from the powerful. Hence this series, entitled “Are Media Lies Criminal?” in which the emphasis is on punishing wrongdoers in the way that they have been punished for centuries, which is by calling upon the law of the land.
Most likely the idea of ethics and councils of complaint are organized by the powerful specifically in order to avert our eyes from the courts where the outrageous stuff actually belongs.
— Mary Maxwell has shown other colors in her Gumshoe article “Yes, You Hafta.”