It’s official – journalists have no right to a conscience

23 March 2004 – The Committee of Editors reviewing the UK newspaper industry’s Code of Practice have decided not to include a conscience clause for working journalists, thus rejecting pleas from MediaWise, the National Union of Journalists, the Commons’ Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and Daily Express journalists.

And Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, has told the trade magazine Press Gazette: “Editors and news editors are as much subject to the Code of Practice as any journalists, so there should not be a problem and, therefore, no need for a conscience clause.”

But there clearly is a problem, as exemplified by the Daily Express journalists who protested against being pressured to produce stories they regard as racist. The PCC found it had no jurisdiction to deal with such a complaint and referred it to the Code Committee which, predictably, kicked it into touch. So journalists ordered to slant and twist stories to suit a dubious editorial policy designed to increase flagging circulation will remain unprotected from reprisals if they refuse to do so.

Aside from the need to protect journalists who are trying to uphold the very standards which the PCC is supposed to exist to preserve, there is another factor to consider. Once a racist or other offensive story is printed, the damage is done. Even if a complaint is subsequently upheld by the PCC, the headlines and stories cannot be called back. The conscience of working journalists can thus be an important factor in improving the responsibility and reputation of the press – something which is sorely needed.

Manchester Evening News editor Paul Horrocks, quoted in the Press Gazette, says he thinks a conscience clause would be “dangerous territory,” adding: “It’s the province of editors to take those sorts of decisions.” He neglects to mention that it is also the province of editors to consider the views of their proprietors and the circulation of their papers; both factors which may militate against a tender conscience.

What the Code Committee is, in fact, saying, is that journalists have no right to moral scruples; that they are mindless hacks paid to do what they are told and not ask awkward questions. Such an attitude is antediluvian and, if accepted by the PCC, a negation of what that body is supposed to stand for.

In our view journalists SHOULD have the right to exercise their conscience in the context of their professional duties, AND the right to protection from sanctions for doing so. The media are quick and right to defend whistle-blowers in other areas of public life who act according to conscience, and the public are best served if journalists themselves exercise similar rights.

Mike Jempson,  Bill Norris & Charlotte Barry

(Bulletin No 100)

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