Kookaburra with meat

Kookaburra with meat
photo by Lander 777

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What should be done about journalists after hackgate?

Journalism, at it's best, is a noble calling. Democracy depends on robust debate and criticism, and exposure of the views, decisions, motivations and performance of those with political power. Journalism has traditionally been seen to have played that role. And so the guarantee of a free press has become a motherhood belief.

But, as the News of the World "hackgate" scandal has shown, media organisations are themselves extremely powerful - arguably more powerful than politicians in some ways. If those with political power are subject to constraints, accountability, and requirements of transparency because it is in the public interest, why not powerful media organisations?

I'm not sure what kinds of regulation or constraints are justified, but here are some possibilities:
  1. Require media organisations to be subject to freedom of information legislation like government agencies. This should be subject to reasonable exemptions to protect personal information, safety and confidential sources of information - but those kinds of exemptions have already reached considerable maturity in FOI acts. The advantage would be that a greater light could be thrown on the internal ethics and practices of media organisations. It would not stop them investigating and reporting, but it might give them some pause.
  2. Introduce a statutory tort of serious invasion of privacy along the lines recommended by the Australian Law Reform Commission
  3. Require journalists purporting to report news to have a personal responsibility to adhere to a rigorous code of ethics, involving things like
  • reasonable evidence for published assertions of fact, 
  • no exposure of personal information of individuals without their consent unless the public interest in reporting such material clearly outweighs the public interest in the protection of privacy
  • not engaging in plagiarism
  • the risk of being struck off as a journalist for serious breaches of ethics
I know lawyers are the butt of jokes suggesting the public regards them as unethical. But I find it unimaginable that a similar sized group of lawyers would systematically flout the law in the way alleged about the journalists in News of the World. Each of them would personally be risking being struck off and ending their careers as lawyers. My perception since entering the legal profession is that lawyers take very seriously the fact that they are officers of the Court and have a duty of fidelity and honesty to the Court - as of course do the Courts. (I don't know if this is only true of the profession in Australia).
Similar standards (administered through registration) apply to doctors, nurses, teachers, architects and others. I know there are arguments against professional registration, but I think if journalism is to be regarded as a profession it implies that individual professionals will have a responsibility for their professional conduct and are accountable for it.

Nor am I suggesting that registration as a journalist ought to be a prerequisite for publishing anything. But perhaps it should be a requirement for being published in a news publication (perhaps only for those above a certain audience size or reach) as news.

Arguments for freedom of the press from any regulation appear to me to be diminished in the internet age. While anyone can publish anything, there is widespread freedom of expression - even for unpopular and wrong opinions. I am not arguing for constraining that - merely for creating greater trust and standards in journalism.

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