Saturday, 30 July 2011

Hacking, blagging, resignations and media ethics

I was away from home on holiday as the News of the World (but perhaps wider) phone hacking scandal broke (and the Guardian's coverage here), not just in one wave but in several, across the different beaches of the media world, the policing world and the political world. At one point, it became a moment of great excitement to watch the 10 O'Clock news after a day out somewhere in the Highlands to see who had resigned since the previous evening.

The announcement of an inquiry that would include a study of the ethical issues raised by the scandal prompted a number of thoughts. Judge Leveson, who has been appointed since the announcement to lead the enquiry, characterises its aims as follows (source: the Guardian here):
"The focus of the inquiry is the culture, practices and ethics of the press in the context of the latter's relationship with the public, the police and politicians."

"At some stage there needs to be a discussion of what amounts to the public good, to what extent the public interest should be taken into account and by whom."
My initial thoughts when the inquiry was announced were as follows:

1. It is not for the Government to define the ethics of a profession such as that of the news media (though it may be for a Government to enact prudent legislation relating to such ethics).
2. The more proper source for defining an ethical framework is the news media profession itself, perhaps through the mechanism of its trades unions (see, for example, the National Union of Journalist's Code of Conduct) and other representative organisations.
3. Recalling Pope Benedict XVI's remarks in Westminster Hall about the role of religious faith in relation to public life, I wondered whether the Catholic Church, and indeed other religious bodies, would be asked to give evidence to the inquiry on the basis of the ethical insight that they have to offer.

The clearest statement at an international level by the Catholic Church on media ethics is in a statement "Ethics in Communications" published by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications to mark World Communications Day and the Jubilee of Journalists in June 2000.
The ethical dimension relates not just to the content of communication (the message) and the process of communication (how the communicating is done) but to fundamental structural and systemic issues, often involving large questions of policy bearing upon the distribution of sophisticated technology and product (who shall be information rich and who shall be information poor?). These questions point to other questions with economic and political implications for ownership and control. At least in open societies with market economies, the largest ethical question of all may be how to balance profit against service to the public interest understood according to an inclusive conception of the common good....

21. In all three areas—message, process, structural and systemic issues—the fundamental ethical principle is this: The human person and the human community are the end and measure of the use of the media of social communication; communication should be by persons to persons for the integral development of persons.

Integral development requires a sufficiency of material goods and products, but it also requires attention to the "inner dimension" (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 29; cf. 46). Everyone deserves the opportunity to grow and flourish in respect to the full range of physical, intellectual, emotional, moral, and spiritual goods. Individuals have irreducible dignity and importance, and may never be sacrificed to collective interests.

22. A second principle is complementary to the first: The good of persons cannot be realized apart from the common good of the communities to which they belong. This common good should be understood in inclusive terms, as the sum total of worthy shared purposes to whose pursuit community members jointly commit themselves and which the community exists to serve.
The most interesting insight offered by these principles is to the understanding of the idea of "public interest", which, in the statement of the Pontifical Council, should not be immediately conflated to the idea of "common good". It raises the same question as is implied in Judge Leveson's remarks about the purpose of the enquiry, namely, whether the defence of "public interest" should continue to be used to justify otherwise disallowed behaviour.

In a paragraph that approaches more closely the practicalities that arise from the current scandal, the statement says:
The presumption should always be in favor of freedom of expression, for "when people follow their natural inclination to exchange ideas and declare their opinions, they are not merely making use of a right. They are also performing a social duty" (Communio et Progressio, 45). Still, considered from an ethical perspective, this presumption is not an absolute, indefeasible norm. There are obvious instances—for example, libel and slander, messages that seek to foster hatred and conflict among individuals and groups, obscenity and pornography, the morbid depiction of violence—where no right to communicate exists. Plainly, too, free expression should always observe principles like truth, fairness, and respect for privacy.
The statement argues for public participation in policy making with regard to the communications media, and the involvement of the profession itself and of religious bodies in the effort to develop ethical codes of behaviour. Decisions about media policy should not be made just on the basis of market or economic considerations as these cannot be counted on to safeguard the common good. this latter observation has implications for the existence of "media empires".
25. Professional communicators are not the only ones with ethical duties. Audiences—recipients—have obligations, too. Communicators attempting to meet their responsibilities deserve audiences conscientious about theirs.
The first duty of recipients of social communication is to be discerning and selective. They should inform themselves about media—their structures, mode of operation, contents—and make responsible choices, according to ethically sound criteria, about what to read or watch or listen to. Today everybody needs some form of continuing media education, whether by personal study or participation in an organized program or both. More than just teaching about techniques, media education helps people form standards of good taste and truthful moral judgment, an aspect of conscience formation.
The readers of some newspapers that I could name, and that might be trying to fill the gap left by the News of the World, might like to think about this paragraph! This paragraph suggests something about which muted comment has been made in the context of the recent scandal, that is, that the readers of the News of the World in particular and other newspapers in general should take some share in the responsibility for what happened.

The statement of the Pontifical Council ends with the following paragraph:
33. Jesus is the model and the standard of our communicating. For those involved in social communication, whether as policy makers or professional communicators or recipients or in any other role, the conclusion is clear: "Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another... Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear" (Eph 4:25,29). Serving the human person, building up human community grounded in solidarity and justice and love, and speaking the truth about human life and its final fulfillment in God were, are, and will remain at the heart of ethics in the media.
 And though I add it as a Postscript, the early paragraphs of the statement of the Pontifical Council make a point that applies just as much to those of us who are primarily recipients of the news media as it does to those who are its producers. It is human persons who are responsible for their behaviour in this field, and the responsibility should not be diffused to some impersonal corporate mass:
Although it typically is said—and we often shall say here—that "media" do this or that, these are not blind forces of nature beyond human control. For even though acts of communicating often do have unintended consequences, nevertheless people choose whether to use the media for good or evil ends, in a good or evil way.

These choices, central to the ethical question, are made not only by those who receive communication—viewers, listeners, readers—but especially by those who control the instruments of social communication and determine their structures, policies, and content....We say again: The media do nothing by themselves; they are instruments, tools, used as people choose to use them...

No comments: