Other Regarding or Self Regarding?

Aidan White
"The Stanmore lanes project, again, NO STOPPING, Wikileaks" by Newtown grafitti licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 -

“The Stanmore lanes project, again, NO STOPPING, Wikileaks” by Newtown grafitti licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

In order to examine how journalism can inspire change in the way communicate and how we can identify useful and reliable information we should begin by recognising that ethical journalism is a distinct form of public communications. It is not the same thing as free expression.

Journalism, for instance, is about providing information in context, giving background and explanation and, at its best, about truth-telling.

While free expression is a liberating process and provides opportunities for everyone to have their say, it is no guarantor of truth.

Free speech can only help us get to the truth when it is embedded in discussion in which different opinions are not only expressed, but are tested in open debate.

This is why media pluralism and independent journalism – the core values of press freedom – are essential to the creation of an environment in which people have access to the truth.

Press freedom is, like academic freedom, a branch of free expression that promotes truth-telling through open debate. It is a form of expression that is, in the words of philosopher Onora O’Neill, “other regarding.”

This makes journalism distinct from other forms of freedom of expression which, according to Professor O’Neill, can be regarded as “self-regarding.”

The other regarding nature of journalism is shaped by its commitment to ethical values and public mission – accuracy and truth-telling, independence, impartiality, humanity and responsibility to others, and accountability.

These are not values recognised generally by people who exercise freedom of expression. Everyone under international human rights standards has the right to free expression. That means we can, within the general law, say what we want, when we want and how we want. We are not obliged to be truthful, honest, transparent, or decent and public-spirited. We have the right to be offensive, insulting and deceptive. Exceptions to this right are permitted, but they should be unambiguous, set out in law and narrowly defined.

This right to “self-regarding” expression underpins much of the communications in our open information landscape whether through social networks, political spin, or public relations.

The distinction made by Professor O’Neill 14 years ago has become even more relevant in the age of social networks and online communications. Today the world of Twitter, Facebook and online chat combine to create a plethora of self-centered and unrestrained chatter which is often abusive.

Ethical journalism, on the other hand, is about constrained expression, not free expression. Journalists, in theory at least, are people who impose voluntary self-restraint on the exercise of their free speech rights based on a commitment to respect for others and attachment to ethical principles.

Journalism is not unique in this, but the press commitment to voluntary restraint reflects a historical tradition of professionalism in use of information that is not commonly found across the modern open information landscape. Indeed, the need for such behaviour might not be recognised or acknowledged by many bloggers or users of social networks, who jealously guard their right to free expression.

The question that arises is how can this tradition of codified professionalism help others in the public sphere to exercise self-restraint in a way that will strengthen the quality of public discourse and take the hatred and inhumanity out of public communications.