'An unfortunately Calvinist approach to ethics': Response to Media Reform recommendations

Tim Gopsill
18 December 2011

The owners and editors of the popular press and their apologists regard their critics as hypocrites who like to affect modishly leftish poses while secretly relishing the salacious fare they have on offer. These people (the media bosses) have never, ever, had to take criticism seriously. They could be as arrogant as they liked.

So one of the attractions of recent events has been to watch the pennies drop as reality encroaches on their power-crazed consciousness. (Paul Dacre got it early, for instance, while Kelvin MacKenzie, the great finger-on–the-pulse exponent, and James Murdoch, still haven’t, and so on.)

Whether they realise it or not, they are in the midst of a momentous change in attitudes towards the media. It may be that it is the growth of the internet, rather than the scandal, that is at the root of it, but they are losing their mystique.

For years even critics of the national press have been utterly obliged to declare that, however drastically the PCC might need reform, there can be no alternative to self-regulation. Everyone had to throw up their hands in horror at the mention of any possibility of a role for the state.

Now, thanks to the outrages of the Murdoch press, and the futility of the PCC, everyone can see that self-regulation is finished and statutory authority is required to give any regulatory mechanism any bite.

In effect, the taboo around the power of the national press has been broken. Their argument that they are the only alternative to state control, rolled out time and again over 30 years against half-hearted threats to legislate, has lost its force, making the threats now serious.

Statutory power, completely detached from state direction, is the power of the public – and why shouldn’t the public interest be applied to the media?

The relationship we are pursuing between public and the media rests on a contract. This identifies journalists as representatives of the public in relaying to them information of importance and interest that they cannot acquire in person.

To perform this function journalists require huge privileges, in terms of access to information, people and events, legal protection etc, and these rights carry the obligation to report in the most honest, fair and accurate way the journalists can manage.

This is the foundation of what is rather misleadingly called journalistic ethics, which is nothing to do with individual morality or conscience. It is about the rules that flow from a contractual obligation and their implementation and how they are absorbed by practitioners.

This is all very basic but I raise it because it is missing from the CCMR’s Ethics section, which has an unfortunately Calvinist, sheep-and-goats approach, with the Damned at News International and the Elect at the Guardian. But NotW journalists were not wicked and Guardian journalists are not righteous.

The issue is compliance with rules, just as in the law, accountancy or any other profession. And this is the basis of statutory involvement in regulating the press and internet.

The state has a right to ensure, on behalf of the public, that the media are sticking to their contract. This replaces the mechanism that the media owners have got away with invoking for 50 years: the market: if you buy it, you endorse it.

That is not even consumer law, where buyers have rights regarding the standard of the products. And it ignores the example that is in front of our eyes, where public service notions are acknowledged as obliging journalists to provide news of a demonstrably higher standards than in the press. No wonder the Murdochs hate the BBC so much.

Tim Gopsill was editor of the NUJ's The Journalist for many years and co-author of “Journalists: 100 years of the NUJ” (Profile Books 2007). He is now active in the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and edits the journal Free Press.

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