a talk to NUJ Edinburgh Freelance Branch, 20 February 2012
Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936) was a journalist in Chicago. His famous Irish character, Dooley, once warned of the power of newspapers:
“The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the military, controls the legislature, baptises the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead and roasts them afterwards.”
One part of that has often since been taken up as summarising the job of a newspaper: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I quite like that, only I would make it a little more political. The job of a journalist, as I see it, is to try and help the powerless by challenging the powerful.
Maybe not everyone will agree, but it’s a good starting point I think for discussing ethics in journalism this evening. In doing so I should make clear that what I say is no more and no less than my personal opinion, based on my experience as a freelance journalist over 30 years. I should stress that I don’t have any exclusive insight on ethics, nor any claim to be more or less ethical than any of my colleagues.
Journalism in the UK these days is not in a good place. It has been accused of many wrongs, some of which leave a very bad taste in the mouth. In no sense can hacking the voicemails of Milly Dowler, or acquiring and publishing the private diary of Kate McCann be described as comforting the afflicted. To me, one of the most depressing aspects of the current crisis is the unending stream of revelations about how so many journalists have broken so many rules to uncover things of so little importance.
Things are going to have to change, of that there can be no doubt. There will have to be some new form of regulation, and as journalists we’ll have to work harder to justify what we do, and the way we do it. For me, that means several things.
We need to be more honest. I’m uneasy about dishonesty and deceit. That’s not to say that there’s no justification for going undercover, or disguising your real intentions, but the cases in which that is done have to be clearly and genuinely in the public interest, and not in the interest of titillating the public. I don’t think I have ever been deceitful in pursuit of a story. I always say who I am, and try to make clear what I’m doing and why I am doing it. Maybe there’s been a few occasions when I haven’t initially let on everything I know, played the ‘daft laddie’ if you like, but before publication I think you always need to make it clear what you’re going to say so that those criticised have a fair chance to respond.
We need to be more open. For a profession that spends much of its time trying to discover secrets, journalism is often very secretive. We guard our sources – quite rightly – we kept quiet about our stories to try and make sure we are not gazumped by competitors, and we are sometime shy about our research techniques. But now the age of the internet enables us to be more open, and we should seize that opportunity. Leaked documents, responses to freedom of information requests and background reports can all be made available or linked to online. So that now if I write a story about revelations on nuclear weapons safety based on an FoI response, the full response can be published online so that readers can consult the sources themselves and make up their own minds. If I get leaked an internal memo betraying problems with nuclear submarines, the memo can go online with my story, so that people can see the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence. If I report on a new scientific study about pollution, I can link to the study itself so that anyone who is interested can follow it up. These to me are huge steps forward in improving the openness, transparency and ultimately the trustworthiness of journalism made possible by the internet. They should be embraced.
We need to be more careful. Facts are important. We need to try and make sure we get them right, checking and double-checking them, always aware that we’re more likely to believe things we want to believe. In that respect writing for New Scientist was a good discipline, because if you got something wrong to the third decimal place, an army of anoraks would let you know. And writing online is again developing new disciplines, as mistakes, when pointed out by readers via Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere, can be easily corrected. As one online news editor proudly said to me: “We’re never wrong for long”. But please no copy approval, though, as Hello and OK practice with celebrities.
We need to think through ethical dilemmas. To illustrate this I want recount a recent experience with the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Last year, in response to a freedom of information request from a disarmament campaigner, the MoD released a very interesting report by Andrew McFarlane, the former head of its nuclear safety body.
McFarlane’s report assessed the safety of the reactors that drive Britain’s nuclear submarine and found them wanting. They were “vulnerable” to a potentially disastrous “loss of coolant” accident and could cause submarines - and their crews - to be lost. I and others wrote stories saying that.
But the version of the report the MoD released was heavily censored - redacted - with large parts of the text explaining McFarlane’s concerns blacked out. So while it was possible to see he had concerns, it was sometimes difficult to understand exactly what they were.
Then, bizarrely, the MoD released different versions of the McFarlane report to me, and to others. What we quickly discovered was that in these versions the redaction had been so poorly done that to reveal the hidden text all you had to do was to cut and paste it into another document. So we were able for the first time to read the whole report, which added some important details to the story. It said, for example, that British nuclear submarine reactors were twice as likely to suffer catastrophic accidents as US submarine reactors and civil nuclear power stations.
So what to do with the new information? I wondered about doing nothing in the hope that the MoD would make the same mistake again and reveal something more interesting. But my ponderings soon became academic as one of the less-admirable Sunday tabloids, the Star, made a story out of the fact that the MoD had accidentally revealed sensitive information that could be of value to our enemies. In my view, that was nonsense.
Several organisations then took the decision to publish the full Macfarlane report on their website. I published it on mine. The Star ran another piece calling on the MoD to act to suppress the accidentally released information.
But quite rightly, the MoD did nothing, and the full Macfarlane report remains available for all to read. I believe that the reason the MoD did nothing to suppress the information that they had accidentally released is that there was nothing in it that was really security sensitive, or that could be of any possible use to any of our notional enemies.
It may have been embarrassing to the MoD, and worrying for their sailors, to know the weaknesses of their submarine reactors, but it should not have been a secret. The text that the MoD tried and failed to censor would, I think, eventually have been released if it had been challenged via the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal. Since all this came out, the MoD has announced that for future submarines, it will collaborate with the US to design and build a safer kind of reactor. That’s surely an improvement.
But there was an ethical dilemma in what happened. Should I have revealed the text accidentally made available by the MoD, or should I have just pointed out the mistake and handed it back to the MoD? I think I did the right thing, but others may disagree. The internet of course makes such dilemmas much more common. How often have government and public agencies accidentally revealed something they shouldn’t have by mistakenly posting it online? How often have I searched websites for things that shouldn’t be there in case I can make them into a story? But is that right?
There are ethical dilemmas over hacking. Celebrity voicemails – no, though as I understand it just changing the default password might have helped those concerned protect their privacy. But Wikileaks US telegrams? Corporate corruption? Some hackers are heroes, at least in fiction – the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo gives a journalist some cracking stories by hacking into emails. I’ve never done it, but is it always wrong?
We need to be more responsible. What does that mean? Everyone will have his or her own definitions. I go back to the great journalist, James Cameron, who wrote extensively about nuclear weapons and about the Vietnam War in the 1960s, often making fierce criticisms of them both. As a result Cameron often found himself the butt of criticism for being biased or lacking objectivity. His response was typically robust:
"I do not see how a reporter attempting to define a situation involving some sort of ethical conflict can do it with sufficient demonstrable neutrality to fulfil some arbitrary concept of 'objectivity'. It never occurred to me in such a situation, to be other than subjective, and as obviously so as I could manage to be...As I see it, the journalist is obliged to present his attitude as vigorously and persuasively as he can, insisting that it is his attitude, to be examined and criticised in the light of every contrary argument, which he need not accept but must reveal."
(James Cameron, Point of Departure, Oriel Press, 1967)
As far as I am concerned, Cameron is right. Thank you.