A Moment of Crisis and an Ethical Turning Point for Journalism

Aidan White

This week the biggest inquiry into press corruption in Britain for a generation came to a close and a group of leading journalists were sent for trial on charges of shocking editorial misconduct.

There could be no better moment for the Ethical Journalism Network to launch a new conversation on issues of journalism ethics, governance and media regulation.

The EJN brings together owners, editors and journalists across all media platforms in an effort to improve media standards. It’s a new initiative and urgently needed at a time when, across the globe, there is anxiety in abundance over the sorry state of journalism.

The decade-long crisis of traditional media – falling revenues and shrinking circulations – is only partly eased by the news that, in some regions at least, rising literacy rates and improving economies are helping media grow.

Although the convergence of media platforms and the digital revolution has transformed newsrooms and is reshaping the media economy, work in journalism is increasingly precarious. Editorial cuts mean less money is spent on training, research and investigative reporting. The fourth estate is not what it was.

At the same time, the rise of social media and unregulated online communications has sparked a debate among governments about how to control the Internet and how to regulate our new media landscape.

In this context, the latest developments in Britain with its rich tradition of independent news reporting are genuinely worrying.

The major fear is that the fallout from the Leveson inquiry into the press and scandals at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation will lead to punitive new controls on journalism.

This inquiry took eight months, heard from 650 witnesses and gathered 6,000 pages of written evidence on the misbehavior of the press starting with the phone-hacking scandal at the now-defunct News of the World.

The report is due by the end of the year with many observers convinced that among the recommendations will be proposals for legal regulation of the press.

Ominously, on the same day as the inquiry closed its doors prosecutors announced that eight journalists and executives, including a former editor who went on to be the Prime Minister’s head of communications, will face trial – and possibly jail – over phone hacking.

Meanwhile, across the Arab world – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in particular – after much talk of media reform and liberating journalism from state controls, there are already signs of a political backlash.

In India and Pakistan and across the wider region of south and East Asia the good news of an unprecedented media boom is being overwhelmed by stories of unruly journalism and corrupt media practice.

In China and other authoritarian states cat-and-mouse media politics prevail as government try to keep a lid on the Internet and restless journalism.

Everywhere governments look to monitor media and to control what we say and how we say it. Many journalists rightly worry that calls for new legal regulation of the Internet are thinly disguised attempts to increase governmental surveillance of personal communications and to discipline dissent.

Social networks and the participation of the audience in the gathering and distribution of news have turned the media business on its head but they also open up society and shine a fresh and searching light on how people in power behave.

Suddenly, journalism has become more complex, more demanding and more ethically challenging, not least in its ability to remain independent and to balance the right to report freely, with the rights of others, whether to privacy, to tolerance, and to equal treatment.

And none of this is made easier when media play fast and loose with their privileges and power (Murdoch media in London comes to mind) or when they avoid their responsibility to be transparent and accountable.

The EJN and its commitment to building a culture of ethics, self-regulation and professionalism in the multimedia world is a timely reminder of the need for professional solidarity among people in media who care about the future of news.

In the digital age, people need well-informed committed journalists led by transparent and committed owners and managers. No-one else can deliver the insights or the lashings of style or the range of reliable and truthful stories that the public seeks.

Certainly it is time for a new vision of media and communications, beyond the depressing media narrative of the past decade, but it is only viable if it is based on an old and enduring truth, that journalism only functions well when it is ethically-driven and regulated by media professionals in partnership with the public.

If Lord Leveson in London keeps this in mind the clean-up of the mess after the News of the World scandals may yet provide us with ways to keep media ethical without putting journalism to the sword.