With the report of the Leveson inquiry into UK press ethics due within days and decisions from the Australian government on its own twin media inquiries now well overdue, get set for a coordinated rendering of garments and gnashing of teeth against the coming assault on our sacred freedoms.
In fact, the hysteria-meter has already been activated by brave defenders of freedom – the lone voices speaking up for ordinary folk against the intrusions of unelected busybodies and out-of-touch elites in judiciary, academia and the so-called ‘public’ service.
In the UK, The Daily Mail has indulged itself with a 12-page dummy spit, alleging that the entire Leveson inquiry has been a conspiracy by leftist snobs (“the people who know best”) to suppress and control Britain’s “raucous” popular press.
Here in Australia, Rupert’s broadsheet pitched in with a piece cleverly implying that Leveson’s upcoming “expenses-paid” trip to Australia is some kind of summer holiday lurk. Even our own communications minister Stephen Conroy has got the fish head in the mail, with The Australian telling its readers that he intends to “muscle in” on the media.
Nowhere in any of this hyperventilation by media dressing up its own commercial interest as the public interest is there any recognition of the low esteem they are held in by the public. Nowhere is there any reflection about why they rank alongside real estate salesmen in terms of trustworthiness.
Nowhere do the “defenders of freedom” seek to address how freedom might encompass hacking phones, lying to readers about climate change, wilfully misrepresenting public policy to suit the ideological and commercial imperatives of their proprietors or whipping up populist fear campaigns that scapegoat the poor, the vulnerable and the different for ratings points.
But you can be absolutely sure that warnings of the coming freedom apocalypse will foul the air faster than a flatulent fig eater once there is a hint of a decision being made about media regulation.
In the meantime, The Failed Estate has unearthed a possible non-intrusive blueprint for improving journalistic standards. This would require no special design or legislation or implementation plan. Indeed, it already exists. It’s called, rather quaintly, the journalist’s code of ethics. You can find it on the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance website.
It’s worth quoting in full (italics my emphasis):
The Journalist’s Code of Ethics
“Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists describe society to itself. They convey information, ideas and opinions, a privileged role. They search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They give a practical form to freedom of expression. Many journalists work in private enterprise, but all have these public responsibilities. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable. Accountability engenders trust. Without trust, journalists do not fulfil their public responsibilities. Alliance members engaged in journalism commit themselves to:
- Respect for the rights of others
- Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.
- Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.
- Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.
- Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.
- Disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism. Do not improperly use a journalistic position for personal gain.
- Do not allow advertising or other commercial considerations to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence.
- Do your utmost to ensure disclosure of any direct or indirect payment made for interviews, pictures, information or stories.
- Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material. Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast. Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice.
- Present pictures and sound which are true and accurate. Any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed.
- Do not plagiarise.
- Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.
- Do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors.”
Call me naive, but I suspect if journalists actually paid attention to, and lived by, that code of ethics, we wouldn’t be contemplating additional regulation. But there you go.
And here we are.