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Media Ethics: Is the Sky Falling?

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DOWLER HUGH GRANT
PA

The UK's Leveson Inquiry this week brings into focus the many debates that have taken place over the last two months about whether the British media's ethical foundation needs a radical overhaul after the apparent transgressions that have occurred through the News of the World phone hacking controversy. Many of these debates have global implications, given the nature of news syndication today; News International being among the most obvious example.

Much of the moral debate on this subject has focused on the case of Milly Dowler's family who are perhaps the most worthy victims in this situation. The knowledge of their daughter's voicemail being hacked at such a crucial time in the investigation of their daughter's disappearance amplified the trauma they experienced around Milly's death.

However, among the most crucial aspects of this debate is the way that celebrities - notably Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan - have intervened to speak on behalf of a community for which many people are unlikely to find much sympathy - the rich and famous.

One of the challenges with celebrity witnesses in any legal environment is that their creative personas often intertwine with the public's opinion about the merit of their concerns. Who didn't watch Steve Coogan's testimony and expert to hear a joke? And we got one or two. Upon noting that he saw journalists rummaging through his bins he noted that they did not look like tramps, adding "well almost".

Equally, the reporting of celebrity testimonies occurs via the people who are the subjects of their criticisms - journalists. So, it is always risky when appealing to people with public profiles to establish the facts, especially when attempting to aid the public understanding of legal debates. In part, this is why many courts maintain a distance from media reporting, so as not to pollute the hearing with media opinion.

This isn't the first time that celebrities have questioned the intrusion of the press - the Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones wedding photos debacle between Hello and Ok! Magazines or Earl Spencer's pursuit of a European ruling on privacy are two of many more instances that have occurred over the years. Yet, the difference here is that the debate about the phone hacking case has focused more on the ethical rather than the legal changes that may be necessary to make. But, what ethical principles have been broken or which of them should more adequately be upheld?

One of the challenges in this case is that the difference between morality and ethics have been conflated. To be clear, journalists are governed by ethical codes but, in this case, it is the absence of a moral conscience that has caused more outrage, rather than just a transgression from an ethical framework. Codes of ethics compel rather than determine how people will act within a professional context. In contrast, moral convictions tend to prevail without the need for professional coercion.

This difference between morality and ethics is crucial when deciding what should be done. Journalists often operate by their own sense of morality when investigating stories and, at times, this may challenge their editor's own sense of morality. Sometimes, this is a good thing, especially when editors become too powerful and a newspaper loses sight of its public obligation, as may be said of News of the World. However, when the editors and the journalists lose any degree of commonality in their sense of what is in the public interest and worthy of reporting, then we find a situation like the present case.

The public interest and respect for privacy is the standard moral tensions within debates such as this one. Journalists have claimed that there is no better way to find the truth than to listen to somebody's private messages, while the victims of hacking claim that privacy must still ensue despite their celebrity lifestyle.

There are a number of bad arguments that surround this case. It is inaccurate to claim that a person's phone messages are any great insight into truth; they are fragments of conversations at best. Even if they were helpful in determining facts, embracing such modes of practice within journalism would lead to the end of all privacy claims for all kinds of people - perhaps everyone.

This would include permitting access to how journalists obtain their stories through coercion or entrapment. We would find ourselves in a situation where homes are wire tapped at will and by a range of institutions on the basis of public interest. The absence of all privacy is unlikely to create a very trusting society, as previous countries that have taken government surveillance too far have found.

Yet, the public interest argument is also disingenuous. To claim public interest over the justification for publishing stories about the sex lives of celebrities is a huge stretch of the concept. In these cases, it is commercial interests rather than public that are served, where the primary beneficiaries are media organisations, not the general public. At most, a member of the public may choose to consume a different form of leisure experience upon learning of any perceived moral transgression of the key actors, but this is hardly a greater good than the harm that may ensue for the individuals concerned, not to mention their families.

Both Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan are right that their being celebrities does not, in itself, legitimate intrusion into their private lives. There is no 'faustian pact' - as Coogan puts it - even for the celebrities who court the media. There must always be a point at which they - and indeed, we - can say no to journalists and expect our privacy to be respected. An obvious example of this is reporting on the children of celebrities. Were the concept of privacy completely dead, then we would tolerate many more intrusions than is presently the case. We don't, because privacy still matters.

A second problem concerns whether or not the kind of journalists that are the focus of this conversation should be called journalists at all, as opposed to some other kind of media professional with a different code of ethics and different public expectations. Such a change in status would lead to a situation where the coverage of celebrities would occur via some form of contractual agreement, rather than free press. Importantly, this would not mean the demise of a free press, only that many of the periodicals whose work is primarily entertainment than news would lose these freedoms. I see no great loss in this regard, especially as most so-called news content derives from the work press officers and agents anyway.

There is one other further dimension to this debate that is rarely discussed, which is people's reliance on the media in an era when content is open and available. Most of us don't have time to follow proceedings in full, but today we have the opportunity to watch the full, unedited testimonies of the Leveson Inquiry witnesses without having to rely on a mediated interpretation. Today, public institutions have become news providers and our reliance on traditional media should be reduced considerably. In an era of pervasive media, we have also recreated an unmediated world.

So what is the answer to the question about how the press should be regulated? A number of ideas have been discussed from licenses for journalists to leaving things just as they are and making the present regulatory systems more effective. Some have argued that the system is perfectly fine - the journalists were caught by the system - and that any regulatory system will always be imperfect. As such, the possible loss of a free press that may ensue from tighter regulation would outweigh the possible infractions that evidently do occur within the present system.

The loss of a free press has such great implications for society that the anxieties of celebrity's losing control of their private lives is unlikely to be of any great significance in the grand scale of things. However, public laws are put in place for all kinds of people and we are asked to imagine how they would affect not just celebrities but people from any walk of life who may find themselves in a position of vulnerability, as is true of the Dowler family.

On this basis, change is necessary. Self-regulation with independent auditing is a much better way to monitor ethical practice - it works quite well in hospitals with Institutional Review Boards, for example. The press needs a much stronger internal ethical structure than is presently in place. Such boards should benefit from independent consultation from media ethicists and lawyers, whom are able to critically scrutinize day-to-day practice.

Such a system may also include, for instance, journalists having their own communications recorded in the course of their work, so as to later scrutinise their methods. If call centres monitor the calls with clients, why shouldn't journalists have their calls monitored for training purposes?

Journalists shouldn't be hacking our phones, we should be hacking theirs.

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