Of conscience and cowards

30 June 2003 – PressWise has long campaigned for the inclusion of a conscience clause in journalists’ contracts, tied to the PCC’s Code of Practice. We have argued that journalists should have the right to refuse assignments which breach the Code, without fear of disciplinary action. And, by and large, our arguments have fallen on deaf ears.

Until now.

Now the idea has been endorsed by the Commons Select Committee on Privacy and the Media (which also agreed with most of the recommendations in the PressWise submission, Stop the Rot), and by the NUJ. As Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ’s Ethics Council said:  “The principle is clearly right – if our members were able to refuse a job they believed was wrong, there would be far less bad journalism.”

The Press Complaints Commission, for reasons on which one can only speculate, has always been vehemently opposed to this idea. It remains to be seen whether it will be embraced by the new chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, as part of his promised reforms, but the omens are not promising. In any case, the PCC would prefer to pass the buck to the editors, since this would form part of the contractual deal between them and their journalists.

So what do the editors think? Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, is quoted in the Press Gazette as saying: “The editor must be the keeper of ethics on any newspaper. Any good editor would never ask or expect any of their journalists to break the code of practice in the first place.”

Pause for hollow laughter. Mr Satchwell is assuming that:
(a) All editors are “good” – a somewhat dubious proposition;
(b) That editors always make their ethical decisions uninfluenced by commercial considerations; and
(c) That working journalists take their instructions from editors rather than the news desk.

Mr Satchwell needs to live in the real world, where journalists frequently carry out tasks they know to be unethical for fear of losing the next commission or being, at best, sidelined in the office. How many can put their hand on their heart and claim they’ve never had a pang of conscience about a story?

Editors should be ethically proactive. They should be fostering a climate in which individual journalists would not be afraid to question their ethical motives right from the moment they’re commissioned to cover a story – especially in this age of instant web coverage and 24-hour live broadcasting.

Editors want self-regulation. And while the PCC is unprepared to take greater disciplinary powers than a gentle slap on the wrist this is wholly understandable. But the growing number of complaints from the public is proof that their readers care very much about ethical standards. This is already being reflected in falling circulations; something about which Mr Satchwell, his fellow editors and their accountants, must surely have great concern.

A conscience clause to enable those at the coalface to play their part in cleaning up the ethical Augean stables of British journalism would be a good start. For Mr Satchwell to reject the idea invites the good old journalistic question: WHY?

Bill Norris
Associate Director

(Bulletin No 87)

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