There was something of an irony about spending a morning in Chennai exploring the issue of journalistic ethics with students at Anna University and then to learn after the session that Rebekha Brooks had been charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Every teacher has an element of the show pony and being able to drop that piece of fresh information into the workshop would have been a good moment – if only to underline the irony of a UK journalist talking to students anywhere about ethics at a time when the behavior of our profession is under close public scrutiny.
As it was, while phone hacking, Leveson, the Murdochs et al played a part in the discussion, they remained just one element of a presentation designed to look at ethics from a practical point of view. What I wanted the students to think about was how we can practice ethical journalism day by day in busy newsrooms. How do ethics fare in a world where competition is fierce and the ‘if we don’t do it they will’ argument is a strong one? Then there’s the explosion of news sources – viewers’ footage shot on a mobile phone, Twitter messages from the scene of an incident, blogs posted by those caught up in news events.
We need look no further than ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ for an example of how some basic principles of professionalism – like ensuing you’re interviewing a real person – could have given the lie to that apparently authentic take on the Arab Spring. Then there was the ‘user generated’ picture of the Polar Bear on an English beach used by an ITV regional newsroom – until they learned it was a cow. A few simple checks – and a dose of journalistic cynicism – might have prevented that embarrassment and stopped an untruth getting on air. (Interestingly, the students who saw the picture all immediately identified it as a Polar Bear.)
You might begin to see that what I believe we should consider is that ethical behavior and professional practice go hand in hand. The Leveson inquiry was created in the wake of the scandal of journalists employed by a Murdoch newspaper hacking mobile telephones to get information, only a tiny part of which could be deemed to be in the public interest. Leave aside the fact that hacking is illegal – it is poor journalism. That’s not just my view but the one Rupert Murdoch himself set out at the inquiry. It was, he said, lazy. For lazy, I contend, read ‘unprofessional’.
Since there is nothing more stomach turning than a journalist pontificating about the behavior of other journalists, let me offer a confession. One example of unethical behavior I shared with the students was from my own work. As I explained, I didn’t set out to paint a false picture of an event but by allowing my need to hurry to override my normal professional approach, that is what I did. In the global scheme of things it was a small error but one which had a disproportionate impact on a family. Since for them – and their circle – it damaged the reputation of my newspaper and, by association, of journalists, I regret it deeply even many years later.
There is an important task for us as educators of aspiring journalists. We need to explore with them what they see as the factors that might prevent them ‘doing the right thing’ and we need to offer them strategies to build their confidence when the pressure is on. They need a thorough understanding of law and regulation, including those laws involving electronic communication that we perhaps haven’t seen in the past as directly relevant. They need help, too, to develop a clear understanding of the public interest and some personal skills to help them through difficult decisions.