Media Ethics: The Leveson Inquiry and how it relates to freedom of the press pt.2

In terms of journalistic responsibility, perhaps the subject of ethics is best seen through the lens of function. Any ethical code for journalists cannot be idealistic; it would have to be functional and hence realistic. If the bar were raised too high, it could deter journalists and editors from ethical practices. Sometimes, avoiding ethics may just be an exercise in ‘how far can we go before we get caught?’.

Journalists can be trained to work and exercise their right of freedom of expression ethically, without causing harm and offence, or intruding into the privacy of someone else. However, as mentioned above, it is not always the name on the by-line who is to blame.

The main problem with the Leveson report is that many of the issues at hand were recognised as ethical issues, and not legal issues. The phone-hacking part of the scandal can be dealt with in court, as it is illegal. However, the underlying ethical (or unethical) choices make it difficult to legislate for preemptive measures to regulate the press. It is assumed that the law is just and certain but ethics are fluid and situation-driven, thus reasonably difficult to build into legislation. It is clear that Leveson recognised this; for example, with regards to the definition of public interest as seen in the statement below.

“The regulator, when applying the Code, will have to adopt a consistent interpretation of the public interest. If an editor can create his own definition of the public interest without any constraint then the standards will be meaningless”. [part K, chapter 7, par.4.24]

An example of this can be seen from clause 10 ii) of the PCC code referring to subterfuge:

“Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.”

With public interest changing meaning from one case to the next, it is difficult to say where the line would be drawn.

The public interest defence is vital for the freedom of the press and must become clearer. Legislation up to this point has tried to balance the right of freedom of expression of the journalist against the rights of privacy of the person who is the focus of the story. Even so, it is not entirely supported by an ethical backdrop as most legislation relating to privacy has been written on a case-by-case basis.

As guardian of the public interest, the press clearly has a great responsibility to provide the public with accurate information. If the press becomes compromised, it becomes untrustworthy.

On the flip side of this, Jack Shafer recently pointed out in a blog post that, as a society, we have become obsessed with press critique:

“As my Reuters boss, James Ledbetter, noticed ay back in 1998 as he was exiting the press critic profession and just as the Web was reaching escape velocity, we’ve all become critics of the press.”

Everyone has an idea of how a journalist is supposed to behave, but very few consider the awkward or uncomfortable situations journalists are put in on a daily basis. For example, no one – aside from maybe a medical professional – would have to face a family after the death of a daughter, or son, or a sibling. Journalists also follow soldiers into war, in order to bring updates on the situation to people back home.

Even so, the very concept of what a journalist is has been challenged by the presence of bloggers and digital journalists. With the ease of accessibility to information, and individuals being able to publish it easily online, the status of exclusive information has changed radically. Furthermore, the act of putting up links and videos on a news website  is governed by a completely different set of ethics. This is because the consumption of news online is completely different.

Buying a print newspaper or picking up a free copy of the Metro is an active act of acceptance – the buyer consents to being exposed to the ethics of the newspaper. However, online, news is everywhere; on social media sites, on Google, Flickr, Youtube, and all just a few mouse clicks away. When the consumer is not satisfied by one site, it is very easy to move on to the next.

It must be said that Leveson’s analysis of ethical codes and, by extension, his recommendations were mainly directed to the print media. As specified in his report, however, “Ofcom estimated that 41% of people today use the internet for news and current affairs coverage, and that the internet accounts for 21% of news and current affairs consumption; this compares with 53% of adults using a newspaper, but newspapers account for only 11% of news and current affairs consumption.”

The desire to establish a regulatory body to cover both online and print publications triggers a multitude of questions. For example, who would be liable if an offensive video or picture was attached to a news article? With content management systems as developed as they are, need for a sub-editor has been diminished and journalists can publish their material directly onto the web. Is this wise?

What’s more, at the faster pace of consuming news, journalists are pressed hard to find a new story as soon as they finish one. How cautious can they afford to be? Also, in the case of blogging, are bloggers then to be held accountable for what they write in their blogs?

On the other hand, in terms of freedom of the press, online routes are most liberating. Publishing things online is extremely easy; the main ethical issues with the internet are entangled with social media. Most recently, Paris Brown, 17, was held liable for offensive tweets and had to step down from being Kent’s youth police and crime commissioner. However, if she had been a journalist, what would the price have been? Thus far, ordinary people have been held responsible for their tweets and taken to court, but journalists appear to be particularly careful.

Furthermore, the presence of social media allows journalists to access a great deal of personal information about people. While no law has yet clamped down on what can be used from a person’s profile, the ethics of the situation are dodgy at best. Even if a person consents to a picture being used, they may change their mind once it an article is written. Sometimes the person affected is not around to give consent – for example, tribute groups on Facebook for someone who’s died.

Either way, the ethics of the media were driven towards change after Leveson’s report. He specifically stated he did not wish the report to sit on a shelf and gather dust. Prime Minister David Cameron rejected the report at first, but has agreed upon a Royal Charter establishing a recognition panel that will preside over the independent self-regulatory body. In Scotland, the government went further by drafting up a potential bill as per Leveson’s and McCluskey’s reports. Part of this bill is expected to be incorporated into the Communications Act. While the legal side may have proceeded faster than expected, there is still much work to be done before the British media are vindicated and their ethics up to scratch.


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