Nick Jones

Media Ethics

Phone hacking at the News of the World was not simply the “tip of the iceberg of journalistic bad practice” but one of many damning “icebergs” which would be revealed by the Leveson Inquiry.  This is the bleak assessment of Mark Lewis, solicitor for the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.  He was at the forefront of the Hacked Off campaign for the widest possible investigation into the conduct of Rupert Murdoch’s journalists. 

MPs and journalists were put in their place by a feisty panel of four life peers at the annual “cash for questions” evening held to raise funds for the Journalists’ Charity. 

Sky News presenter Anna Botting, who hosted the event, had a fistful of questions from the guests who crowded into a marquee on the terrace of the House of Commons for one of the most popular events in the charity’s social calendar (20.6.2011).

Any understanding of the power of the British news media – and especially that of the national press – has to take into account the differences between journalism here in the UK and other comparable countries such as the USA or our nearest neighbours in Europe.  In many ways British journalists are a race apart; they’re very tribal; they like to hunt as a pack once the chase has begun; and as our politicians are the first to acknowledge, they take no prisoners.  The politics of Britain are shaped and influenced by the media in ways which other parliaments and legislators find hard to comprehend.  

 

WikiLeaks’ practice of releasing leaked American military and diplomatic data exclusively through selected media partners was roundly criticised at the annual conference of investigative journalists held by the Norwegian SKUP foundation. 

Any journalist who in the past might have experienced a buzz on receiving a leaked document sent through the post in a plain envelope can only marvel at the prospect of having access to the vast treasure trove of confidential information made available by the whistle blowing website WikiLeaks.  A leaker of yesteryear could hardly have assembled, let alone handed over, the great mass of documents which can now be compressed into a single compact disc and then disseminated online. 

Access by journalists to the Facebook profiles of people who have died and the republication of Tweets which were exchanged between friends are two of the issues currently being considered by the Press Complaints Commission.Facebook allows subscribers to delete content pages and even remove their whole account but the company has yet to decide what policy should be adopted over access to profiles on the death of a subscriber.

Having been a journalist for fifty years, I am in no doubt about my own position. I support and applaud principled individuals who are prepared to leak information which they believe should be in the public domain.  They invariably put their own jobs on the line and often face the threat of a criminal prosecution.  Yes, many in public life might think such principled leakers are misguided; that they are deliberately breaching their conditions of work; and letting their down their own colleagues, their employers and perhaps the state.  But although leakers have my support, I think journalists do have responsibilities when deciding whether to print or broadcast information and data which has obviously been gained by illicit means.  I have spent my career working within codes of practice and guidelines which were designed to ensure that I was accountable for what I wrote and said.  And that is my worry about WikiLeaks. Thanks to the revolution in information technology, it has become a publishing house for leaking on an industrial scale.  But it lacks the checks and balances under which most journalists have always had to operate.  

A gripping account of what it felt like to be editor when the Daily Telegraph broke the scandal of MPs’ expenses had even hardened reporters sitting on the edge of their chairs at the annual lunch of the Journalists’ Charity at Simpson’s in The Strand (2.3.2010).William Lewis, now editor in chief of Telegraph Media Group, said that initially he feared the story was a hoax and he was not completely convinced until the Justice Secretary Jack Straw finally confirmed that the purloined disc, which contained details of all the claims, was genuine.

Where Power Lies, Prime Ministers v the MediaBy Lance Price, Simon and Schuster   Lance Price provides an engaging mea culpa for his days as a Downing Street press officer under Tony Blair but then weakens his own credibility by presenting a demolition job on Gordon Brown’s Premiership based almost entirely on un-attributable quotations from anonymous sources.

Unlike the USA, where the press is in dire straits, British national newspapers are hoping to reinvent themselves on line and derive a new income stream from their websites. Despite the odds being stacked against them, the press proprietors are determined to try to get readers into the habit of paying to view online. But this can only be achieved by forcing the BBC to curb the expansion of its online output.  Downsizing the BBC would create the space in which to develop potentially profitable pay-for-view sites – an option almost certain to be favoured by an incoming Conservative government. By buying up exclusive and often sensational videos the newspapers are already showing that they can beat the established broadcasters at their own game. Digital convergence will give the press to ability to join up the dots…to command the agenda not just in print and online but in radio and television as well.  

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