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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

How Leveson might promote journalism ethics

The Leveson recommendations for regulating the British press is a clever, informed attempt to nudge – push? – newspapers into the modern world where major institutions need to account for their power, and abuse of power.

But my hope is that the inquiry will go beyond setting up regulations to prevent unethical actions. I hope it will go further and prompt journalists (and others) to use this moment to develop and strengthen journalism ethics in our media culture.

Leveson’s major recommendations of an independent regulatory and a new law supporting freedom of the press take the right approach. It recognizes that in liberal democratic societies the defence of a free press should be seen as striking the right balance between a journalist’s right to publish and a citizen’s right to expect journalists to use their power in a responsible manner.  A new law speaks to the protection of a free press; a new regulator speaks to the protection of citizens and the public interest.

Beyond this approach, we can differ on important details, such as what the new law would say and the nature and mandate of the regulator. An independent regulator is the best approach to the press in a free society. It is perhaps the only form of press ‘self-regulation’ left that the public might accept. Newspapers who reject the idea – and some have already – are making a fundamental mistake in defending press freedom.

Lord Leveson, through a ‘carrot and stick’ method, has cleverly put the onus on the newspapers: he makes membership in the regulator voluntarily. Hence he can’t be accused of seeking to muzzle the press. This is the carrot. Yet he offers a “stick”: if newspapers don’t join, they could reviewed and regulated by Ofcom, the existing British broadcasting regulator – something newspapers would not wish to see happen.

I believe that Ofcom is not the correct “back-up” regulator. Neither should the back-up be the politicians. Better alternatives include a panel of judges, a public body of distinguished citizens (including senior journalists), and so on.

Developing journalism ethics

Unfortunately, the Leveson inquiry has significant limitations. It applies only to newspapers, whereas we need a more comprehensive discussion of the ethics of publishing offline and online by professionals and citizens.

Another limitation is that the report speaks only to the “negative” side of journalism ethics: the need for laws and regulations to prevent unethical journalistic conduct. However, given the reason it was set up – journalistic phone-hacking – it was inevitable that the inquiry would focus on this restraining, negative side of ethics and the law.

At this time, we have an opportunity to use the public attention on journalism ethics to promote its more positive aspects. There has been some mention of journalism ethics being part of journalism training. I think this idea must be strengthened to include ethics courses and teaching in all programs that teach journalism and other forms of publication. More than that, we need to enlarge the education to include “media ethics” – the norms for using any form of communication responsibly, whether we are journalists or citizens, young or old. We need to teach such norms across the university and college curriculum, not just in journalism schools.

Finally, the press, as they join their new regulator, need to embark on an ambitious project to develop its own ethical philosophy and principles. They need to show what these principles really mean and how they can be improperly applied. For example, they need to show how the broad notions of “serving the public” and “a public-interest reason to investigate” do not include unjustified harassing of individuals simply because they are celebrities.  It does not justify the use of hidden cameras and other methods except as an exception – an exception where editors must be able to provide a strong ethical justification for using such methods. In short, it needs to create a new statement of journalism ethics for today’s media landscape.

If the Leveson inquiry sparks a revival of interest – genuine interest – in articulating and applying ethical practice in journalism, then that by itself would be a useful legacy of the inquiry.

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