Has News Ltd Actually Done Anything Wrong?

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Writing in defence of News Ltd when not employed by News Ltd is no doubt career-suicide for a young writer on a progressive website. It’s also astoundingly difficult: News Ltd is so very easy to dislike. I get extremely frustrated that Piers Ackerman, Andrew Bolt, and Janet Albrechtson have utterly trashed Australian conservatism and continue to push us down the Tea Party path.

And while I’m hardly a fan of the Greens, I still find the petty personal attacks on Senator Lee Rhiannon distasteful and undignified. They are similarly petty in their openly declared vendetta against the Greens (though it would be unfair to disregard their defence).

In short, it is hard to deny the charge levelled by Ben Eltham in New Matilda last week that Murdoch’s empire has a toxic influence on public debate. And all of that was true long before it was revealed that its sister company, News International, was hacking the phones of child murder victims.

On the other hand, I — like, it seems, most New Matilda readers  — am not terribly satisfied with Australia’s media landscape in general. Many of the criticisms I can level at, say, The Australian have equivalent counterpart criticisms for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald: the obsession with trivia, the lack of substance, the ideological streak, the wrecking of public debate.

It is extremely difficult to shake the feeling that the knives currently cutting strips off Murdoch, Murdoch & Co. have been sharpened for a very long time.

I’m sure nobody would be shocked by the somewhat predictable bunfight between Margaret Simons, Caroline Overington, and Jonathan Holmes. Who would have guessed Crikey thinks News Ltd is a terrible newspaper company or that Overington doesn’t hold Simons in high regard? A shiny penny to any person who can tell me precisely what Stephen Mayne is demanding on The Drum: a parliamentary inquiry into … Graham Richardson’s post-parliamentary career with News Ltd? And what a shock, Wendy Bacon, writing this week in New Matilda, agrees that News Ltd has too much influence over the Australian media and should be reined in. But few could match the mental gymnastics of last week’s Media Watch as it leapt excitedly from News International’s phone tapping to the bid for the Australia Network by the partly News Corporation-owned Sky News.

It’s like watching the hyenas maul Scar at the end of The Lion King. Sure, Scar wasn’t exactly the hero of the story, but did he deserve to be torn to shreds?

Despite the dearth of evidence of criminality, we have a choir of commentators singing out for a trial. They just know that somebody in News Ltd must have done something diabolical at some point. An inquiry will probably find out the who, what, and when. Maybe.

The preoccupation with petty grudges is squandering an opportunity to think more broadly about ethics and the media. Alhough some have indulged in a little bit of navel-gazing about the right to know, public interest, and other grandiose whatnot, drowning in the self-indulgent screeds lie important philosophical problems about the media.

The most prominent example has been the childish and potty-mouthed brouhaha about the role of codes of ethics for journalists. Despite the unfortunate (and unprofessional) invective, there is a serious point being discussed which deserves attention.

There’s a basic rule to codes of ethics: if you need a code of ethics to tell you that you’re doing the wrong thing, you’re probably doing the wrong thing. Margaret Atwood opens The Handmaid’s Tale with a great quote: "There are no signs in the desert that read, Thou shalt not eat stones". Similarly, one would think that a journalist shouldn’t need a code of ethics to know, "Thou shalt not tap phones".

On The Conversation, Bill Birnbauer lets us know how difficult it is to be an ethical journalist in the modern world. He asks us to imagine — if we mere non-journalists can — a situation where our bosses expect us to perform morally dubious tasks: a journalist respects the expressed wishes of a grieving family, misses out on a "scoop", and is consequently shredded by the editor. Instead of correctly identifying that the desires of our employers might not always be moral, Birnbauer believes his example "illustrate[s]the ethical complexities that confront journalists almost daily wherever they work". If somebody asked you why you performed a morally questionable act, do you think "My boss wanted me to" would exonerate you? Bill Birnbauer does. He teaches journalists how to be journalists. Perhaps we should regulate journalism lecturers.

But some went a bit further than to suggest that journalists need codes of ethics in their workplaces. News Ltd, it was claimed, was committing a heinous atrocity by not publishing their Code of Ethics online where all the non-journalists in the public could read it. You just have to read it slowly to uncover the absurdity of the protest: how on earth does it benefit the broader public to know the specifics of News Ltd’s Code of Ethics?

Are they written so that we — "The People" — can hold newspapers to account? We ought to be able to do that anyway. And our complaints wouldn’t be, "You breached your own code," but, "You breached commonsensical standards of morality". Further, imagine a journalist committed some outrageously indecent act which was somehow consistent with the code; would it satiate our outrage to know that the act was bureaucratically justifiable? If anything, public codes of ethics provide a cover for journalists: instead of committing themselves to ethical behaviour, they can play legalistic word games. They only have to abide by what the code says, not what it means.

Is there some qualitative improvement made by publishing a code of ethics online for all to read? The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s public code of ethics includes a "guidance clause" which states: "Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context. Only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden." So the code of ethics demands ethical behaviour, but not if the journalist thinks that there’s substantial public interest in the story. Weak.

So if journalism lecturers believe fairly simple ethical quandaries are wickedly unsolvable and if publicly published codes of ethics contain escape clauses for guidance, shouldn’t we be pushing for journalists to — as a bare minimum — respect the "person on the Bondi tram" intuitions about ethical behaviour? It doesn’t seem to be that great a challenge for the majority of us. As Judith Lichtenberg wrote, the moral lines "between the permissible and the impermissible, the respectable and the seamy, are extraordinarily complex, for journalists and for everybody else" (emphasis mine). In the age of "citizen journalists" moral codes of journalists ought not be substantially different to that of the ordinary citizen. How could it be that most of us can navigate our lives without need of codes of ethics but journalists go rogue without them in the public domain?

And despite the plethora of codes of ethics for journalists — both published online and "hidden" on corporate intranets — phones got hacked.

But let us suppose that I have erred in my reasoning about codes of ethics for journalists. Let us instead assert that journalists — like doctors, researchers, and public servants — should be strictly governed by a publicly available code. It’s not an unreasonable position: journalists have enormous institutional power which they might be ceaselessly tempted to abuse. It would seem odd for said code not to contain some requirement that journalists have evidence or some good faith reason to support claims which damage reputations.

And yet, as I noted earlier, there has been nothing to support conjectures of criminal activity by News Ltd beyond the actions of the sister company, News International. Also, there has been nothing to suggest Sky News’ bid for the Australia Network is suspect merely because it is partly owned by a company which is itself partly owned by News Corporation. Not only are the claims irrational and wrong-headed, it is immoral to besmirch the company and to cast aspersions about its employees without evidence. Do we really need a code of ethics to know this? If the critics of the Murdoch media are so eager for public codes of ethics, shouldn’t they be practising what they preach?

That’s not to say that Murdoch’s Australian newspapers would refrain from smearing their opponents with dodgy logic (cough, Senator Rhiannon, cough), but that doesn’t excuse the rest of us. If we are to be dignified in our outrage, we cannot succumb to similar behaviour when it suits us.

Although News Ltd does things we might not like, doing things we don’t like isn’t a reason to establish parliamentary committees or rewrite the regulations. The media grudge match behoves none of us, and we ought not indulge in righteousness or Schadenfreude in response to News Corporation’s self-inflicted woes.

 

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