ONO-president Jacob Mollerup’s address to The World Newspaper Congress and The World Editors Forum in Vienna on October 15th, 2011. The 2011 World Newspaper Congress and The Worlds Editors Forum in Vienna had ethics on the programme – heavily influenced by the phone hacking scandal in the UK.
A joint session (moderated by professor Roy Greenslade from UK) asked the question “Profit, public interest, ethics – where to draw the line?”.
ONO-president Jacob Mollerup was the first panellist to give his thoughts. This is his opening remarks on where to draw the line:
“Before trying to answer that, please allow me just one remark on the perspective of the amazing phone-hacking scandal.
In that case many failed to draw the line – in time. The politicians failed. The police failed. The Press Complaints Commission failed. And News Corp. itself – of course.
Actually it was the public that in the end said: enough is enough. The Guardians story about the Milly Dowler-case was of course the turning point. But it was the public disgust that forced Rupert Murdoch to close The News of the World in order to protect his other businesses.
That is – I believe – the encouraging message from this case. The public were drawing the line. And with the active help from brilliant investigative journalism.
In this case we are talking about one of the most influential media-empires in the world – and their use of totally unethical methods.
The consequences evidently go far: In Britain the Murdoch-empire managed to achieve SOME degree of control – not only over many newspapers and the majority of private television – but also over politicians, the police and even the press regulator. There are indeed many lessons to be learned from this.
But where to draw the line in journalism, we are then asked in this session?
Many editorial codes and many guidelines for media-ethics have tried to answer this question. We all know the buzz-words: Fairness, accuracy, trustworthiness, serving the public good, editorial integrity, the right of reply, the respect for privacy etc. etc.
Just let me highlight one very crucial element. In discussing media-ethics and the use of tough methods, it is key how to define the public interest? A part of the British tabloid-tradition has been well-known for defining the public interest so broadly, that it also included matters, that by normal standards were very, very private.
Media-ethics only make sense if you define public interest as what it is: The public’s right to know about things that are important for society and for democracy.
And thinking of phone-hacking. I would not rule it out in any case. But such methods should only be used in very rare cases of extreme importance. To put it another way:
The greater the possible intrusion by journalists, the higher the public interest hurdle has to be. Using such methods is only justified in special cases of very great public importance. Let me just mention four essential demands:
– There must be integrity of motive – the intrusion must be justified in terms of the public good
– The methods used must be in proportionate – using the minimum possible intrusion.
– There must be proper authority – any intrusion must be clearly authorised at a sufficiently senior level
– It must be impossible to uncover the story will normal methods.
So using very tough and far reaching methods just to go fishing for gossip-stories is of course without any ethical justification.
But the “Rebekah Brooks” of this world does not seem to care much about such ethical considerations. Anything goes seem to have been the basic editorial guideline – at least in the last years in the history of News of the World.
So evidently we have to look at two other aspects.
Firstly: Could such ethical codes be used to hold all media accountable – and how.
Secondly: Is it sometimes more profitable to be unethical?
First regarding media-accountability:
The free news media in this world every day calls for others to be accountable for what they do. But the difficult question is how to hold free and independent media accountable themselves. Who controls the controller?
The dilemma is evident: You can’t have a state-regulator of media-ethics without running the risk of damaging media freedom.
But this fact should not be used as an excuse not to be accountable. The best solution is for the free media themselves to create mechanisms of transparency and accountability. The toolbox is well known.
The most important thing of course is to have a strong journalistic culture in the newsroom. And editors taking responsibility.
But this should be supported by a number of other safeguards. It can be a National Press Council backed by the media themselves. It can be openness and dialogue in each media about the journalism. It can be a national media-ombudsman. It can be an independent ombudsman for each media and so on.
The latter model is the one we advocate in The Organization of News Ombudsmen – and we are proud to have active members from many of the best newspapers in this world: New York Times, Washington Post, Folha de Sao Paolo, The Guardian, El Pais, The Hindu and so on.
The ombudsman should work independently and be able to investigate cases where the newspaper is criticized. And he or she should be able to comment on the newspapers ethics in regular columns.
It is well-documented in practise, that this can be a simple and yet effective way of self-regulation. Done well this form of self-scrutiny will in the end make the newspaper more trustworthy. Editorial independence is unchanged. The editor in chief still has the final decision in any case. But it gives openness, frank discussions and a more accountable newspaper -or broadcaster.
I think newspapers around the world will act wisely if they use and advocate some of these self-regulation mechanisms.
If newspapers don’t recognize the problem and if they don’t take self-regulation much more serious, then there is a great risk that others will take the initiative. Just look to Great Britain at the moment. A number of politicians have launched ideas about media-regulation that should be of great worry to the free press.
In other parts of the world press freedom is still heavily restricted. But every time press freedom is misused it gives arguments for dictators and repressors. They love to see a free press behave badly. So sound self-regulation is also important for the global struggle for press freedom.
All this said we must of course acknowledge, that regulation is only one of many challenges facing newspapers. The biggest present challenge to good journalism at free newspapers are without comparison the problems facing the business model.
So therefore – before closing – one remark on the business case for self-regulation.
I can’t prove that sound ethics is good for business in any case. At least a number of very profitable and very aggressive tabloids seem to indicate the opposite.
But I can argue for three other statements:
Firstly: Publishing without sound ethics is an increasingly risky business model. In the extreme situation you can end up like The News of the World. But bad ethics – also on a smaller scale – can these days result in boycott campaigns and increase the risk of very costly libel cases.
Secondly: Effective self-regulation will in most cases be very cost-efficient – also in the short run. It will solve many cases that would else wise end up in court. It also produces stories on problems in the newsgathering – stories that are often of great interest to the readership. Also to the readers of The Sun and The Mirror and other big tabloids.
Thirdly: Many of the most profitable companies in this world see Corporate Social Responsibility as a cornerstone in how they work and expand. Newspapers should see it the same way. And for them sound editorial ethics and sound self-regulation should be the key element of their Corporate Social Responsibility.
So to put it short:
Bad ethics can maybe produce a profitable publication. But it’s an increasingly risky business-model. The alternatives look more promising – for investors, readers and society. And for editors not to forget!”
See more from Vienna here: