16th March 2015
By Stefanie Chernow

Untold Stories: Report Reveals How Corruption Inside Media is Killing Ethical Journalism

Time to Act Over the Corruption That is Killing Ethical Journalism

The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), a global coalition of almost 50 journalism and media support groups, today warns that growing corruption inside media is posing a deadly threat to the future of ethical journalism.

The EJN has published a damning report covering 18 countries – Untold Stories: How Corruption and Conflicts of Interest Stalk the Newsroom – that exposes how financially-stricken news media are being overwhelmed by political and corporate interest groups.

The report claims media managers are doing deals with advertisers to carry paid-for material disguised as honest news; some reporters and editors accept bribes and irregular payments; and there is a culture of dependence on political and corporate friends that makes it increasingly difficult to separate journalism from propaganda and public relations.

“This is a profound crisis that should worry every journalist in every newsroom,” says Aidan White, EJN Director speaking at the launch of the report at the Brussels Press Club. “The media community must defend their ethics and independence from increasing levels of greed, self-interest and propaganda in journalism.”

EJN Chair, Dorothy Byrne, who is also head of news at Channel 4 in the UK says that although toxic mix of political and business pressures are threatening to overwhelm journalism in many countries, journalists and media people can act to stop the rot.

“Journalism requires new rules on transparency, conflicts of interest and ethical governance,” she said. “Many media pay lip service to these principles often because of financial challenges, but we can’t go on like this if we want to maintain public trust in journalism.”

Journalists and responsible owners working together can resolve the crisis says the EJN which sets out an 8-point agenda for action in the report.

The report notes that the major threats come from outside media, with governments, unscrupulous politicians and corporate communicators increasingly shaping the news agenda and taking advantage of newsrooms weakened by cuts, but it also highlights how many wounds are self-inflicted. Many of today’s media owners buy into journalism not for commercial reasons, but mostly to promote their own business and political agenda.

The report says journalism is compromised by politicians and owners in countries where social and political tensions are high, such as Egypt and Turkey. It highlights how in Ukraine paid-for journalism is routinely used by politicians at election time. The same is true in India.

In other countries, including Nigeria, Philippines, and Colombia the precarious working conditions of news staff provide fertile conditions for gifts and inducements. So-called and “brown envelopes” and under-the-table cash payments to reporters and editors are part of the routine exercise of journalism.

The struggles facing journalists in settled democracies, such as the United Kingdom and Denmark, are less stark, but no less challenging and in a range of countries in the Western Balkans with a shared and painful history, media corruption hinders attempts to break free from the legacy of war, censorship and political control during decades of communist rule.

The story everywhere is of an uphill struggle. Corruption and cynicism inside newsrooms saps the confidence of media staff leading to crumbling levels of commitment to ethics, a lowering of the status of journalistic work and a pervasive lack of transparency over advertising, ownership and corporate and political affiliations.

Government control over lucrative state advertising, which is often allocated to media according to their political bias, remains widespread. At the same time, the elimination in most countries of the invisible wall separating editorial and advertising has created a surge of so-called “native advertising,” hidden advertorials and paid-for journalism.

It was this conflict of interest, notes the report, which plunged the crisis-prone UK press into a new bout of handwringing last month when Peter Oborne, a leading political journalist, quit his job at the Daily Telegraph accusing the management of censoring stories about HSBC bank, a leading advertiser caught up in a tax scandal.

EJN Eight-Point Action Plan to Combat Corruption in Media

ONE: A meaningful commitment to transparency inside media and publication of relevant information related to the political and financial interests of owners, managers, editors and all leading journalists and presenters;

TWO: The adoption of rules to prohibit undue interference in the work of journalists and media by governments and state institutions and to establish principles for full disclosure of contacts and transactions between media and state officials;

THREE: Agreed standards on the allocation of all forms of public and political advertising and regular public disclosure of payments made for services to all journalists and media;

FOUR: Creation of genuinely independent and transparent systems for assessing circulation and ratings of media;

FIVE: Introduction of internal systems for disclosing potential conflicts of interest at all levels – whether in the boardroom or in the newsroom – and to set-up structures for dealing with complaints;

SIX: Providing contracts and employment conditions for journalists that meet international labour standards and which give them the right, without fear of retribution, to refuse any form of work that infringes upon their professional codes or their conscience;

SEVEN: Agreement on internal rules and procedures in all media houses to ensure full disclosure of all paid for content and for such materials to be made clearly distinct from editorial and journalistic work;

EIGHT: Launching of urgent debates at national and international level on the need for structures to provide public assistance to encourage the provision of pluralist and ethical journalism without infringing upon editorial independence.

Further Information: Aidan White: +44 7946291511