Nick Jones

Media Ethics

Journalists are addicted to the blame game. The priority is to work out who is to blame and who should say “sorry”.  Personality-led stories attempting to hold public figures to account are the easiest to write. But journalists should be on their guard: political spin doctors and the public relations industry are showing ever greater sophistication in managing the personalisation of news and turning the “S” word to their clients’ advantage.  In a speech to the annual conference of the Institute of Communication Ethics (Coventry University, 28.10.2009) , Nicholas Jones explored the ethics of saying “sorry” and the part of apologies play in the   hyper-personalisation of political coverage.

What makes the scandal surrounding MPs’ expenses so extraordinary is that it resulted from politicians acting collectively to deceive the public. It was that collective betrayal by elected representatives which explains the depth of public anger. Nicholas Jones was one of the speakers at a debate at the House of Commons organised by the Commonwealth Journalists Association on the question: “What price good governance?” (26.10.2009)

Media scrutiny is the only effective means of forcing politicians to tell the truth. This was the argument put forward by journalists in a debate at the Oxford Union (22.10.2009). The motion was that this house trusts politicians more than journalists. Jones spoke for the journalists.

When searching for news and checking facts reporters often have to bend the rules and possibly break the law. But through its covert mass purchase of confidential mobile phone messages the News of the World has blackened the reputation of British journalism. In a true democracy journalists have to be free to investigate without the constant fear of falling foul of the state or of being hounded by the police and the courts.  Indeed principled journalists are ready to go to jail rather than reveal their sources.  But there is a huge difference between a justified breach of personal privacy in support of investigative journalism and a blatant fishing trip for private and confidential information.

Journalists were given little encouragement during a debate on the Priorities for Digital Britain -- a forum held in the wake of the recent report by the outgoing communications minister Lord Carter. Google – which earns 15 per cent of its global income in the UK – insisted it was sharing some of its massive online advertising revenue with UK newspapers and television channels but this was of little reassurance to news providers attending an event organised by the Westminster Media Forum (9.7.2009).

Journalists in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan fear that if there is approval for another round of repressive media laws they could finish up close to the bottom of the international list for media freedom.

Whatever reservations there might be over the way the leaked information was obtained, the publication of hitherto secret details about the endemic abuse of MPs’ expenses was without doubt in the public interest.  

Whether it was cash for questions or dodgy donations for peerages, politicians have all too regularly shown an almost suicidal disregard for the proper management of their financial affairs.  What has proved so damaging about the latest scandal over claims for second homes, furnishings and food was the systematic way in which so many MPs were prepared to abuse the taxpayers’ generosity.

Foreign Press Association debateApril 28, 2009The rapid moves by UK newspapers to develop their online output – complete with video and audio as well text and pictures -- is injecting a  new dynamism into British journalism.  Having been a BBC correspondent for thirty years, I find it painful having to admit this, but I have to say that it is newspapers rather than the mainstream television and radio services, which are at the cutting edge in offering exclusive videos and audio tapes, stretching to the limits what journalism should be achieving and more often than not dictating the news agenda into the bargain.  In the short space of a year or two, newspaper websites have become a powerful new platform -- an online showcase for what is arguably some of the best and perhaps what others might consider is some of the worst of British journalism. 

 

Journalism at Your Service? 

International Journalism Festival, Perugia, 1.4.2009 

 

Two questions should trouble the journalists of Britain, Europe and America as we work through what will be a terrible year for the world economy. Why, during the boom years, didn’t we do more to investigate what was really happening in the financial markets?  And are journalists in danger now of being deflected from the task of holding our governments, banks and institutions to account? Journalists can play their part in serving the public interest by investigating what went wrong, by scrutinising what the politicians are saying, and by helping to ensure that rigorous controls are introduced to prevent the damaging financial speculation of the past.  

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