When Peter Preston, then the editor of the Guardian, sat down with Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, Britain’s most famous department store, in July 1993, the latter told him an astonishing story: British MPs were secretly being paid to ask questions in parliament.
How did Al Fayed know this blatant act of corruption was happening? He was the one paying £2,000 in cash in brown envelopes to two MPs to ask those questions. As the man corruptly paying the MPs, was Al Fayed tainted as a source?
As Preston later put it in a tribute to Al Fayed in the Guardian on the Harrods owner’s retirement in 2010:
“The point about most corruption is that it takes two to shred the rules: one to give and one to receive. How do you break that cosy arrangement? Only by outside investigation, turning up the heat on the fixers. But to expose that fix, you have to find out about it in the first place. And finding out is the difficult bit …
“But Fayed, in the most eloquent way, had told them much earlier what was possible. He didn’t confess to giving MPs and lobbyists cash for questions: he volunteered that information, and stuck by it as the predictable dung began to fly. He blew his own whistle.”
That interview with Al Fayed was the beginning of the UK’s “cash for questions” scandal. The Guardian and the Sunday Times led the way in the exposing and reporting of MPs who had been paid to ask questions in the Commons. Eventually the Nolan committee on standards in public life was set up to improve standards of behaviour in British public life.
As the debate about the need for higher ethical standards in journalism has grown in recent years, one concern expressed by journalists is that they will be, in some way, shackled by ethical guidelines; their attempts to pursue the “bad guys” will be hampered by such rules.
Journalism is, after all, as Preston would often say “a rough old trade”. It is one of the reasons why journalists are often portrayed as amoral chancers, willing to do anything for a story.
However, to suggest that ethical guidelines hold a journalist back from finding out the truth is a misreading of the role of ethics: it should be about best practice, not self-censorship.
Ethical codes should not stop a reporter from talking to anyone who may have important or useful information, unless they are from certain vulnerable groups. And Al Fayed didn’t fit into that category.
Don’t rely on a single source that is likely to have an axe to grind, a score to settle or a need to shift blame or attention. Listen to them, take any information they can give you and then test it, and challenge the allegations they are making. The key is verification: that’s where the ethics comes in. Don’t rush to publish on the basis of one source. But if journalism is about verification, a reporter must first have something to verify.
There are certain exceptional circumstances where a journalist might publish on the basis of one source. But even if the Pope says he is a Catholic, the journalist’s instinct should be to discreetly check his church attendance before publication.
Journalists are not required to like or trust the people they interview. In fact it is, arguably, a positive advantage to keep a distance. Far too many journalists around the world end up too close to politicians, for instance. However, journalists must be prepared to talk to anyone and everyone who may be able to take the story further. These conversations should be the beginning, not the end, of the investigation. As that fine editor Preston said: ”finding out is the difficult bit.”
This blog was published by the EJN as part of “RESPECT – Advancing respect for ethical standards by media and respect for ethical media by citizens.“
The project aims to achieve a common understanding in Montenegro what makes the core ethics of journalism and to inform and inspire the stakeholders how to make ethical journalism work and thus contribute to increase in the overall quality of reporting and trust in media. Specifically, the project aims to improve the capacities of key stakeholders to reinforce the Code of Ethics in the media in Montenegro and to increase the role of citizens in advancing ethical journalism. The project will create an open space for public discussion on media ethics and promotion of the Code of Ethics, and to enrich a public debate with experience and good practice presented by experts and practitioners from the region and EU. Journalism students will be given an opportunity to obtain practical skills by engaging in the action and to strengthen knowledge on the Code of Ethics and its application in practice.