THE BLOG

The sin of defamation

02/05/2014 14:49 BST | Updated 02/07/2014 10:59 BST

When the Pope speaks, millions of people listen. Over the centuries this has not necessarily meant good news. The words of religious leaders have led to Holy wars and significant loss of life.

But don't get me wrong, this is not an attack on the Catholic Church or any particular faith or creed - they all have their own foibles and failings. I write this in praise of the Pope's battle against the sins of the media.

Pope Francis is proving to be a breath of fresh air in the Catholic church, casting off unnecessary adornments, speaking unexpectedly without a script, and bombing around in his dilapidated car.

And he has now shown himself to be even more a man of the moment, despite the tradition in which his role is steeped, following off the cuff remarks to a gathering of Italian 'Catholic-inspired broadcasters' (as the Holy See Press Office puts it), asserting that disinformation, slander and defamation are sins of the modern media. Those of us operating at the coal face of the claimant side of the media divide could not agree more.

The Pope is nothing if not even-handed; he also defined the virtues and the mission of the media, as he sees it. 'Your work should be carried out along three routes', he said, 'the path of truth, the path of goodness, and the path of beauty'. Anyone subjected to the wilder excesses of the tabloid press on both sides of the Atlantic, might see little that is true, good or beautiful in its offerings. Indeed, victims of Britain's 'phone hacking' scandal, the subject of an improper attack on reputation, or anyone with a private life unjustifiably exposed to the world at large, might imagine that the route most often trod by modern media is the path to Mammon, at the expense of reputation, privacy and peace of mind.

The Pope is right, when - in listing the three sins of the media - he refers to disinformation as 'telling half truths, the part that is most convenient... and not saying the other half'. And let's face it, the media has a very large soap box from which to tell that half of the truth that it sees fit. The Pope concluded, 'Those who watch the television or listen to the radio' - and I would argue even more forcefully given the press's seeming lack of interest in behaving responsibly, those who read the newspapers - 'are not able to arrive at a perfect judgement, because they do not have all the elements necessary to do so, and the media do not give them'.

The media fulfills a vital role in society by alerting us to the evils that are around us, wrongdoing, corruption and so on. And the press serves as the eyes and ears of the public by reporting on matters to keep us informed and to enable to carry out lives as educated members of society.

If the media is engaging in sins, peddling disinformation, slander and defamation - as well as unnecessarily invading privacy and engaging in harassment - then they deserve a stern word from the Pope. And we can only hope that when the Pope speaks this time, editors and publishers around the world may just listen.

Amber Melville-Brown is head of Media & Reputation at international law firm Withers LLP