Call it coincidence, but when I agreed months ago to do a St Wilfrid Lecture at Ripon Cathedral I didn’t think it would take place in the week the Murdochs returned to the Leveson Inquiry. Having agreed to speak about ethics and the media, I decided it was too big a theme and narrowed it down a little… recognising the context of the Leveson interrogation. (After dinner following the lecture the city hornblower came into the Minster house to blow his horn at the Mayor of Ripon. Surreal, but traditional!)
Here’s the basic text of the lecture, minus the Q & A and all the asides. It is long…
Andrew Marr begins his excellent history of British journalism My Trade with a rhyme by Humbert Wolfe. It goes like this:
You cannot hope / to bribe or twist, / thank God! The / British journalist.
But, seeing what / the man will do / unbribed, there’s / no occasion to.
It’s easy to be cynical, isn’t it? After all, even Wolfe would be gobsmacked at what has emerged from the Leveson Inquiry so far.
Ethics has to do not only with how we behave, but also why we behave the way we behave. That is to say, when thinking about ethics we need to pay attention to the world view, the thinking and moral assumptions that drive the ways in which we live and choose and relate. So, any consideration of media ethics involves not only a questioning of the media – those who own, work, drive and create media content – but also the rest of us: that is, we who consume media output in any of a million ways. If journalists and media operators need to be subject to ethical scrutiny, so do those who consume their product. As Harold Nicolson observed, “We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts.”
So, we need to begin this somewhat discursive look at media ethics by learning something of the media world in which we actually live and move and have our being. Having done a brief tour of some of the contours of today’s changing media environment, we can then move on to take a look at a couple of ethical issues in particular. And, given the potential breadth of any consideration of the media, I will concentrate most of my observations on journalism rather than, say, film, music, advertising or other entertainment media.
However, if what follows bores you, I suggest you fill the time making a note of two books that help us understand some of the trends and realities in media development, particularly print media. I have already referred to Andrew Marr’s excellent My Trade; the other is Nick Davies’s devastating Flat Earth News – of which more later.
In the context of the Leveson Inquiry we are all aware of the bad behaviour of some elements of the press. Even this week we have seen Murdochs Junior and Senior brought back to face detailed questioning not only of practice, but of motive and the ethical pool in which their media organs have been swimming. And just as goldfish do not usually analyse the nature of the water in their bowl, neither have some media operators critically analysed the ethical nature of the air that they breathe. So, Leveson has dragged out an appalling record of (alleged) lying, duplicity, abuse of power, misrepresentation, deliberate defamation, corruption of public officials and police officers, implicit blackmail, criminality of a variety of types… and the emerging picture begs many questions – not only of those who perpetrated this culture, but also of those of us who fed it by buying the product, not challenging destructive media practices, not questioning the effects of such media behaviours, and feeding the monster by being easily entertained by other people’s destruction or humiliation. Anyway, we’ll come back to this later, once we have surveyed the landscape. And I can illustrate some of this further when we get to questions later.
SURVEYING THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE
The media world is changing. You really didn’t need to be told that. My mother was born in 1932 and last week celebrated her 80th birthday. My dad gave her an iPad. She emails form it, takes photos with it and skypes my older brother when he is working in Kuwait. Five years ago she was struggling with a mobile phone. A true silver surfer, she has seen a revolution in media during her lifetime – a revolution that is speeding up by the minute. From no television in her childhood – and she even cut open the mesh on the front of her dad’s first radio in order to see the little people inside it – she now has hundreds of channels on cable and is adept at social media and googling. Fings ain’t what they used to be.
Not many years ago Fleet Street dominated print media (a term that has only been invented recently) and newspapers at national, regional and local level enjoyed wide readerships. More importantly, they offered an intelligent scrutiny of political power – at the local level by having journalists dedicated to following local council debates and scrutinising the papers that fed those debates. Which is one simple way of illustrating that they played an important role in the democratic discourse, posing the questions the rest of us didn’t think of because we didn’t have the time to read all the paperwork. That’s just one example. Now, however, no newspaper (at any level) makes a profit, journalists do not have the time to do the work they used to do, and there are far fewer of them.
But, it isn’t the dominance of radio and television that has done this. Rather, it is the phenomenal sweep of the internet and mobile communications that has led to people dropping the buying of hard copy and obtaining their news and entertainment on their laptops, iPads or smartphones. And there’s probably no going back. In the last month we have heard that the position of Editor-in-Chief at the Yorkshire Post has been cut. Why? Because the digital revolution is so fast and deep that traditional print media cannot keep up.
So, while many of us marvel at and enjoy the opportunities afforded by the new digital platforms, we are also aware of the cost – at many levels – of this radical change in the ways in which people engage with the media. For example, as Nick Davies points out repeatedly in his important and challenging book Flat Earth News, journalists are increasingly thin on the ground, have little time to get out of the office and away from the computer, can no longer provide the detailed scrutiny of power that served the interests of democratic accountability so well. PR output finds its way into reportage unchecked – not because journalists are incompetent, but simply because there isn’t the money to pay for enough of them to do the job we have expected of them on behalf of the public interest and the common good. In other words, reduced professional journalism creates a democratic deficit that impacts on us all. If we won’t pay for it, we won’t get it.
But, journalists cannot be paid with thin air or the gratitude of a loving public. Traditional media have increasingly tried to bolster their particular medium using traditional methods. Take, for example, your local newspaper. Like many people, you probably hate the fact that the front page is always headlined with murder, catastrophe, sexual deviancy, conflict or destructiveness of one sort or another. But, the editor will tell you that good news doesn’t sell; that bad news does. Somehow. It is the unusualness of an event that makes it newsworthy – a breach in a world that we assume should be both ordered and orderly. Let me illustrate briefly.
Several years ago, on my way to Guildford to preach at a service for the judges of the County of Surrey, I passed a newspaper billboard (for the Croydon Advertiser) that proclaimed: ‘Lollipop lady hit with stick’. From the pulpit I asked the judges which bit of this headline I was supposed to be shocked by: that it was a lollipop lady (not a man or a boy); that it was a lollipop lady (rather than an electrician or a lawyer); that she was hit (rather than poked or tickled); or that the hitting was done with a stick (rather than a fork or a wet lettuce)? The judges just laughed under their wigs – which wasn’t very helpful and didn’t answer my questions.
Anyway, the point is that newspapers try to address the decline in traditional newspaper consumption by trying to sell more newspapers – and they think that this might be achieved by having dramatic front pages rather than good news stories involving local puppies being loved by happy children. But, this solution doesn’t actually address the problem: the decline in sales is not related to the blandness of the product; it is because of the decline in usefulness or accessibility of the medium itself. Or, as Bill Clinton didn’t say, ‘It’s the platform, stupid’.
There are those observers, of course, who would say that the result of the economic and financial pressures, the vast reduction in the number of working journalists in various media, and the plurality of media outlets (you can get thousands of TV channels from satellite platforms) is a dumbing down of content. Even the news has to be presented in a way that entertains us. We can’t concentrate; so, we get brief, lowest-common-denominator infotainment – what some commentators think is just the latest way of anaesthetising us from the horrible and complex realities of the world. Neil Postman pointed to this in the great title he chose for his seminal book: Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Anyway, it will come as no surprise to discover that online editions of the Guardian are accessed by forty times the number of people who read the paper on paper.
The challenge for the media, then, is to discover the sorts of business plans that will allow for businesses to make a sufficient profit to enable them to employ professional journalists who have the competence, experience and conditions (time and scope) to dig into the stories that matter… in order to expose corruption, spread good news, interpret the world, shine new light on matters we thought we understood. At the moment traditional print media are surviving with massive financial losses, and by cross-subsidies from other branches of media businesses.
Now, I don’t want to spend the rest of this presentation explaining media businesses or the radical challenges to traditional media platforms. Nor do I think it will be profitable to try to explain how the various contemporary media operate and interconnect. If we want to do media studies we can go to university and do a course. But, we do need to understand something of the real media environment if we are to comprehend anything of the ethical questions thrown up by the demands of this changing environment. Ethics are not abstract and reality impinges on chosen behaviours. I might add, of course, that to understand is not to condone.
THROUGH AN ETHICAL LENS
So, having surveyed very briefly and superficially the changing and challenging media scene, let’s move on to think about the ethics of all of us who create, own, run or consume the media products. I want to do this by first establishing a fundamental principle – fundamental, that is, to a Christian world view.
A Christian anthropology begins from the belief that every person is made in the imago Dei and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Being so created, each person has freedom and responsibility… and is accountable to God and others who are also made in his image. We are to ‘cultivate the earth’ – that is develop and explore and grow the world – including technology. But, when we lose sight of the value of human being, we will quickly find that anything… eventually… goes. Every person, regardless of their particular compromises and failings, being made in the image of God, is to be respected.
Furthermore, every human being is redeemable. That is to say, it isn’t hard to find the muck of human life; but, do we believe that people can change? A Christian anthropology argues that people – made in the image of God – are redeemable. Therefore, how they behave or misbehave now is not the final word – something Dr Rowan Williams has a lot to say about (mainly in relation to language) in his marvellous book on Dostoyevsky.
Thirdly, human society offers a context of mutual relational accountability. This means that those who wish to stand in judgement on others must, themselves, be accountable. In other words, no hypocrisy on any side.
Now, this is where, as they say, the rubber hits the Leveson road.
The phone hacking scandal is coloured with the deepest of ironies in that those editors and journalists who ‘lost their moral bearings’ have argued that they were only wanting to expose the truth about other people’s lives – that they have a responsibility to (and I quote) ‘hold power to account’. Yet, of course, they located ‘power’ somewhere else and assumed themselves to be the arbiters of truth, the guardians of integrity, the defenders of a moral world. Some journalists still maintain – without the hint of a smirk – that they and their organs have no power… that they simply expose, tell stories, shine a light, describe reality, and leave it up to the now-better-informed to make their own judgements and draw their own conclusions. This is wilful nonsense. Those who have the power to intimidate politicians, destroy reputations, relationships and lives, consider themselves immune from normal moral and legal accountability, are people who shape the world, create a discourse, and not only set agendas for public life, but also assume the right – nay, responsibility – to act as incontrovertible witness, judge and jury in a society they purport to merely observe.
So, I ask: Is it not deeply hypocritical that those who do the judging and exposing are not themselves subject to the same accountability? During the MPs expenses business I received an excoriatingly angry email from one of the journalists involved. I had said on my blog that I thought the newspaper should be sued for incitement to criminal activity – they paid money to get hold of what was confidential data. He argued that this exposure was in the public interest. I asked if we could see the expenses bills of newspaper editors – on the grounds that they also powerfully shape the public discourse and more. He wasn’t pleased.
This ignores the real power that elements of the media have exercised over other people. The fact that a fact about someone is true does not mean that everybody should know it. And something has gone badly wrong when people – flesh and blood human beings – are turned into commodities for other people’s entertainment and titillation at the hands of people who then deny any responsibility for the consequences of their actions on other people’s lives.
When people are misrepresented or misused – held to account by people who hitherto have considered themselves to be unaccountable or untouchable – they betray an empty denial of humanity or human value. And once we start doing that with one category of person, we won’t find it easy to stop the habit. Witness the News of the World. Or listen to Nick Davies – the Guardian journalist who, against all sorts of pressures and threats, doggedly pursued the phone hacking story until it could be hidden no longer: “I know a fair bit about sex and drugs and hypocrisy in Fleet Street: executives whose papers support the war against drugs while shoving cocaine up their nostrils in the office toilets; reporters who attack the sexual adventures of others while routinely dropping their own trousers at the first scent of a willing secretary.”
Journalists may counter that they report the world as disinterested observers. I put it to you that they are shapers of the world along with those about whom they report. There is no moral neutrality to be found here.
Now, this brings us to a second ethical lens through which to look at the media in general and journalism in particular: representation of truth.
Pontius Pilate wasn’t the only person in history to wonder what truth was all about. Truth is elusive. In a relativistic age it is perhaps more slippery than ever. But, if you ask most people what they want from the media – particularly reportage and journalism – they will probably ask for some representation of the truth. And this is where it gets sticky for some of us – where the realities of journalism conflict with the interests of a particular individual. Let me illustrate with a couple of relatively trivial examples from my own experience:
In 2007 I took a group of twenty clergy and lay people from the Croydon Episcopal Area to visit our link diocese of Central Zimbabwe. Times were tough: inflation was by then running at a mere 10,000% and unemployment was reckoned to be around 80%. There was no power, water was not getting pumped into Gweru, people were beginning to get hungry and ill. We were invited to meet the Governor of the Midlands Province – a nice man who welcomed us to his offices. He had invited some of his senior people, but also a journalist with the state-owned newspaper in Harare. Following a robust exchange during the meeting, this journalist cornered me afterwards and pursued his point… on camera. At one point I argued that a confident country with nothing to hide would not ban foreign journalists and then complain about (to their mind) misrepresentation from outside the borders. However, I made the mistake of adding that in a democratic country we all run the risk of being misquoted or misrepresented, but that we also have the opportunity to challenge and respond. This became the next day’s front page headline: ‘Bishop: it is all UK media lies’. Apparently, I had seen no problems in Zimbabwe – it was all UK media misrepresentation.
I spent nearly £400 on my mobile phone pre-empting the damage back in London with the Foreign Office, Lambeth Palace, Church House Westminster and the Diocese of Southwark. To make it worse, a couple of months later a glossy magazine called New African was paraded all over WH Smiths with a three page ‘interview’ with me in which I denied any problems in Zimbabwe. I had done no interview and had no contact with the magazine at all. But, if you google me, you will still get links to this story and there are still people who give me grief when they see it online. (Still, I also saw a headline that read: ‘Prophet drowns during baptism’ and that compensated for the grief. Lousy prophet…)
Nearer to home, I once wrote a book about Christmas. The Sunday Telegraph ran a story about it – or, rather, about one paragraph in (I think) the fourth chapter. The problem came with the headline which, of course, had been written not by the journalist, but by the sub-editor: ‘Bishop says carols are nonsense’. Good story and it travelled the world in hours. According to one newspaper in India I had ‘banned Christmas’ – something Oliver Cromwell tried to do, but failed in the end. For the journalist this was a great story and a good piece. For me it led to fifteen often aggressive radio and television interviews in two days in order for me to try to put the story right. His triumph was my misery… to say nothing of the embarrassment caused to my wife, my colleagues and the church. (I got a barrage of post and emails, one of which suggested ways I might like to take my life and then was signed ‘Yours in Christ’.)
Now, I am not complaining… really. The journalist has to get a story and get it as close to the front page as possible. ‘Bishop says carols are quite nice’ isn’t going to do it. But, I learned the lesson at last that the story is the story – not necessarily what I would like to be the story. It caused me considerable grief, but I survived. The question is, however, was the story true? In one sense it was: I had suggested that (as one of the Wesley brothers had said) we learn our theology from what we sing and not from what we hear from a pulpit – so, if we sing nonsense, we will most likely believe nonsense. I linked this to a comment about babies making no crying…
Yet, the story wasn’t true. I wasn’t saying that carols are nonsense, nor that we shouldn’t be singing them. The point is simply that the journalist was hoping for glory and I was hoping to flog a few books. He got his glory, I didn’t flog many books!
As I said, these are trivial examples, but they bring me back to the most frequently ignored verse in the Bible. The ninth commandment forbids misrepresentation: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’… or ‘you will not misrepresent your neighbour’s case’. The journalist has a responsibility to represent and not to misrepresent – even if the media game demands a bit of licence here and there. Of course, the problem is that most victims of misrepresentation are more concerned about their reputation and integrity than about the newspaper’s sales figures or the journalist’s career – especially when the latter is won at the cost of the former. The news moves on; the damage to the individual remains. The internet never forgets…
The former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, once wrote of the terrible effects of the media pressure on him when he said that the resurrection was more than a conjuring trick with bones. Quite depressed, he was taken out for lunch by a rabbi friend of his and the rabbi told him a story. A bishop and a rabbi went in a boat on a lake when the rabbi’s skullcap was blown off his head and away onto the water. The bishop got out of the boat, walked on the water, collected the yarmulkah and returned to the boat. The next day the newspaper headline read: BISHOP CAN’T SWIM!
But, if the examples I have cited are relatively trivial, then what do we do with the sort of thing that Nick Davies exposed in Flat Earth News and then in his relentless pursuit of the phone hacking story? For, it is worth noting, it was good, solid, intelligent and morally courageous investigative journalism that rumbled the scandals at the heart of the Murdoch empire – in the teeth of opposition from that bastion of a free press.
I guess the real ethical question this throws up is that of utilitarianism: do the ends justify the means? Can morally dubious behaviour be justified if the ultimate outcome is exposure of corruption? Was the Telegraph right to pay an individual to break his own commitments and steal data for the sake of a public story? Ultimately it can be argued that the public interest was served; but the story was run in such a way as to titillate the interest of the public, too – drawn out over weeks. So, even if we decide the ends (the public interest) were justified by the means (of obtaining the data), this doesn’t let the newspaper off the moral hook for the means it adopted. Accountability cuts more than one way, after all.
So, we have identified briefly three ethical lenses through which to look at aspects of the media: how they handle the human person (and what this treatment betrays about our anthropological assumptions); truth and accurate representation; and utilitarian assumptions about people, stories and business. I think this leads us next to think a little about the phrase used to justify media intrusion into some people’s lives: public interest. Clearly, the publication or transmission of something that is ‘of interest to the public’ is not necessarily ‘in the public interest’, is it? A story that is interesting to a particular community might not be of importance to the wider community addressed by particular media organs. Equally, a matter of real public interest might not be communicable in a form that makes it of interest to the audience. However, ‘public interest’ should not be used as a cover for telling tales that titillate some while destroying the subjects – when the fact of it being interesting to some prurient people says nothing about its importance for the common good. Which brings us back to Leveson.
This must be one of the very few public inquiries to have run for so long and yet still not have lost its power to shock. The fundamental question being addressed by Leveson is: how did a particular media organisation (a) manage to hold such power over public officials, the police and its own industry, (b) develop a deeply and endemically corrupt culture of unaccountable abuse, and (c) have the nerve to pervert the course of justice – allegedly – by attempting industrial-scale destruction of evidence of its wrongdoing? Having addressed these questions, Leveson will go on to draw out the lessons and commend a better way of regulating the press – or, at least, holding the press more accountable not only for its product, but also for its methods and behaviour.
In his Orwell Lecture in November 2011, the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, reminded us of the context in which the phone hacking story broke. He said: “… I think Orwell would have been deeply interested in the broader story – not of how you regulate the press, but how one man and one corporation came to have such sway over British political, commercial and cultural life – and how we came within days of allowing him a position of even greater dominance.” You will remember that the new coalition government had decided that there was not really a problem in James Murdoch’s News International taking a major holding in BskyB – thus giving him and his business a staggering degree of ownership of a range of media enterprises. James Murdoch was being defended as a fit and proper person, despite the protestations of many of us who were alarmed for a number of reasons. The relentless rise of Murdoch only began to falter at the last minute when the extent of phone hacking began to emerge – challenging previous dismissals of the extent of any wrongdoing and putting a large question mark over the probity of previous refusals by the Metropolitan Police, Ofcom and the Press Complaints Commission to investigate further.
July 2011 – as Rusbridger recalled: “a month that saw revelations that plumbed new depths in journalism. There were resignations, arrests, a death, parliamentary debates, corporate high drama; family feuding; multimillion-pound payoffs, the closure of a newspaper … and the climax: the “most humble day” in the life of the most powerful media tycoon of this, or of any other, generation.” Yet that was not the beginning and it certainly wasn’t the end of the story. Within weeks the number of people suspected of having been hacked had risen to 5,800. Arrests have continued, prosecutions are now being considered, and Murdoch Junior has had to resign from two of his most prominent positions. Father and son have been summoned and grilled again. They have become the story – a disastrous position for the storytellers to find themselves in.
Yet, what is staggering is that July 2011 followed eighteen months of obfuscation by News International and politicians, intimidation by News International (claiming in print that the Guardian had ‘deliberately misled the British public’ over its allegations of widespread phone hacking), and negligence by a police force that now appears to have been complicit in corruption at different levels. As Rusbridger put it: “… fascinating in what it said about Britain and the settlement so many people in public life had made, over two generations or more, with Rupert Murdoch.”
How did we as a society allow such power and unaccountable freedom to Murdoch’s organs? How did we allow such intimidation to continue for so long? Why did we find it so hard to believe the extent or probity of the allegations against the News of the World and its parent? For, if corrupt journalistic cultures were allowed to grow for so long, they did so with the complicity of a public that gobbled up its product with a voyeuristic passion that now looks shameful. Someone was buying the papers in huge numbers when vulnerable people (the McCanns, for example) were being turned into entertainment commodities for the voyeuristic judgmentalism of a public that surely had lost its own moral bearings.
Yet, nothing should distract us from the ethical mire into which this particular media organisation has dragged us. Not only was there allegedly a culture of bullying in which journalists were compelled to indulge practices they clearly thought were dubious. This company generated its own private intelligence operation – “one that outsourced the dirtiest work to criminals and which, according to people in a position to know, had a formidable private investigation capability.” Intrusion into the private lives of huge numbers of individuals became routine – which suggests that these people were assumed to be dehumanised commodities, depersonalised and to be denied their privacy. Remember the imago Dei?
A brilliant illustration of this to be found in von Donnersmarck’s remarkable and moving 2006 film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The Stasi used surveillance to intimidate, humiliate and control people in the German Democratic Republic. This film shows the consequences for particular people – including the intelligence officer who finds himself humanised – at enormous personal cost – by seeing the humanity behind the ‘cases’. Intrusion into the lives of others becomes unacceptable once you begin to see people as human beings and not simply objects for the entertainment or judgement of others.
If truth matters and is game for exposure in any circumstances, then this must apply consistently – even to those who do the exposing of others. With freedom goes responsibility; with responsibility goes accountability. And, I might say, human beings are to be the masters of their technologies, and not the other way around.
The phone hacking scandal has exposed the ease with which people can be snooped on, watched, followed and stalked. The electronic world means that privacy is rapidly becoming a fantasy when it comes to our engagement with media. Yes, whole new worlds of possibility are opening up – creating new communities, new ways of experiencing the world and relationships, new ways of learning before engaging, and so on. But, it is also a world in which the technology allows enormous power to those whose power needs to be checked. For, I would contest that we live in a world which has lost the capacity – or vocabulary – for ethical conversation (that is, conversation about ethics) on any other grounds than competence. A fundamental tenet of ethics is, as every teenager knows, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In other words, the fact that something is – or is doable – does not imply a moral imperative: we can do it, therefore we may do it. Competence does not imply legitimacy.
In our rapidly changing media world technological competence presents new ethical dilemmas. If we can’t answer them all, we must at least be alert to their importance and not let them go by default. If we do, we might find ourselves in the brave new world lauded by James Murdoch in his 2009 James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival: “There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”
Really? What anthropological assumptions underlie that assertion? Discuss.