The cycle of ethical crises which regularly engulf the British press arises not from a deficiency in the law or ethical codes, which already cover most eventualities, but from a culture of risk-taking in a highly competitive news market. Journalism is sharply divided between those editors and journalists who have the freedom of action and conscience to operate ethically and those who operate in a highly structured and competitive environment in which they are under heavy pressure to deliver stories by any means possible.
For too long the editors themselves have refused to acknowledge this difference and have allowed the ethical excess of the popular press to hide behind the more respectable skirts of serious journalism. Whereas the latter require protection from pressures that might prevent them from investigating abuses of power, the former require firmer rules to prevent them from using their power (and desperation to grab market share) to traduce innocent people.
Those individuals working for highly competitive news organisations also need protection – of their right to exercise their conscience.
Public interest defence
A clearly defined ‘public interest’ defence in law is vital to any attempt at reform because it helps us to deal with the central contradiction of journalism—the fact that ethical journalists may require defence for rule breaking if they are to do their job, whereas unethical journalists may attempt to use a ‘public interest defence’ to protect themselves against criticism.
With a clear public interest defence in place to protect responsible journalism, it should be possible to ensure that codes of ethical conduct are upheld and that those who choose wilfully to ignore them will face some form of legal censure.
- A public interest defence should be drafted to protect serious journalism.
Right of reply
When information is inaccurate, unfair, or just ‘made up’, real people are affected and they should have a right to correct misleading statements. The PCC’s statistics show that in 2009, 87.2% of the complaints it received concerned accuracy and opportunity to reply, and only 23.7% were about privacy. By insisting on a qualified, enforceable right of reply, the British news media would be immediately opened up to alternative points of view, with a minimum of disruption to existing practices.
- A statutory right of reply should be introduced applying to any person who has been directly mentioned in an article.
- The right of reply should be enforceable in the event of dispute by a tribunal or court.
- Publications should have a corrections and clarifications page where all replies are recorded, with basic details and a link to the on-line reply. Online publications should provide a similar page, clearly and prominently flagged on the home page of the publication and tagged so that it is easy to find via search.
- In particularly serious cases (as decided by a tribunal or a court), the right of reply should be offered with the same prominence, and in the same position, as the original article.
- Where a reply has been offered speedily and without dispute it should be taken into consideration as a defence in any further legal action.