Press councils around the world were this week urged to join a new global programme that aims to put ethical journalism in the frontline of the fight for free expression.
In a keynote address to members of the Alliance of Independent Press Councils in Europe and other press council leaders meeting in Vienna the Director of the Ethical Journalism Network Aidan White said a new movement to combat propaganda, misinformation and online hate is urgently needed.
“We face a crisis of communications caused by political spin, corporate domination of the worldwide web and online abuse,” said White. “But the answer is not to draft new laws which could open the door to new limits on free speech.”
Instead, says White, the Ethical Journalism Network is working on a new programme to use models of ethical journalism as an inspiration for public policy aiming to improve public communications, particularly online.
He was speaking just a day after EJN Board, meeting in Oslo with Norwegian media leaders, agreed a new programme to promote co-operation with universities and journalism training schools and to open up a new debate about the need for responsible public communications.
“Free expression around the world is under siege from increasing propaganda, corporate and political spin and an open information landscape dominated by the Internet which has shown itself to be as harmful as it can be a force for good,” he said.
In the face of these threats he said there is an urgent need to strengthen the craft of journalism as an antidote to the scourge of misinformation from terrorists, political extremists, government snoopers, and online predators.
The open information crisis has already been highlighted by the founder of the Worldwide Web Tim Berners-Lee who has called for a new “Magna Carta” for the web – to protect the web from being overwhelmed by governments and corporations.
“He’s right,” said White, “but we must be careful that we do not invite governments to intervene with new laws and restrictions, that could make matters worse. Instead, we should promote ethical journalism as an inspiration for more responsible and more reliable public communications.”
He said that there is no contradiction between promoting free expression and at the same time promoting responsible communications. He challenged some free speech advocates who argue that codes of ethics in journalism, even when they are voluntary, could lead to unacceptable restrictions on free speech.
“I beg to differ,” he said. “Promoting ethical communications at all levels is good for democracy and free expression.”
“Of course it would be absurd to suggest that we should have the migration of journalistic ethics across the whole of the public information landscape,” he argued, “That would be ridiculous, after all the values of impartiality and independence might be essential for journalism, but they are not appropriate for the wider open information landscape where bias, prejudice and even offensive opinions are essential characteristic of free expression and must be protected.”
But he said that some of the key values of journalism are also relevant in for all Internet users involved in public communications.
“Sticking to the facts and avoiding deceptive handling of the truth is important for journalism, for instance, but isn’t that also essential for political speech and corporate communications?
“And isn’t the need to show humanity and to avoid incitement to hatred or violence or discrimination against individuals or vulnerable minorities, which is a cardinal virtue of journalism, also vital to ensuring respectful communications online?”
He said such a programme would help tackle some urgent problems – such as online misogyny and increasing Internet abuse of women who figure in the news as well as the surge in information hate around the migration and refugee crisis.
White says that the new EJN programme of ethical journalism for free expression would bring three benefits.
“First, it will strengthen respect for existing good practice in journalism and the fight for ethics and effective self-regulation in the news business; secondly, it will open the door to new dialogues with the audience on how to improve the quality of public communications; and thirdly, it will help promote alternatives to new laws that arbitrarily draw red lines that limit free expression,” he said.
The EJN strategy in the coming year will be to forge new links with universities and journalism training schools to produce manuals and updated materials on the values of ethical journalism.
Part of the work will include opening new debates among journalists, media academics and the public at large on the need for ethical and respectful communications.
He said that already plans are in place to launch this work in London in association with City University, in Hong Kong with the Hong Kong Baptist University an in Palestine with a consortium of universities that teach journalism on the West Bank and in Gaza.
Part of the programme includes the launch and development of a new global database on journalism codes of ethics and media accountability systems and an ethical journalism forum in co-operation with the Missouri School of Journalism in the United States.
“This will be a practical programme,” said White. “It will respond to the challenge of the digital age to make journalism accountable, but free. It will promote free expression in a framework of self-restraint and respect for others.”
He said EJN supporters such as the World Association of Newspapers, the International Press Institute and the European Federation of Journalists are already vigorous supporters of developing ethical campaigns and he called upon press councils to add their weight to the campaign.
“The information crisis concerns us all,” said White. “If we join forces we can create an information agenda for the digital age that strengthens quality journalism, and at the same time reinforces free expression values for everyone.”