On ethical journalism and the need for media audits

Francis Sedgemore, Monday 21 January 2013 at 17:37 UTC

As part of my background reading around anti-transgender bigotry in the media, journalistic malfeasance and the future of press regulation, I came upon a Council of Europe resolution from 1993 on the ethics of journalism. I was aware that this resolution existed, but to my shame was not fully familiar with the text. Twenty years is hardly ancient history.

The final two paragraphs of Resolution 1003 (1993) stand out…

“In order to supervise the implementation of these principles, self-regulatory bodies or mechanisms must be set up comprising publishers, journalists, media users’ associations, experts from the academic world and judges; they will be responsible for issuing resolutions on respect for ethical precepts in journalism, with prior commitment on the part of the media to publish the relevant resolutions. This will help the citizen, who has the right to information, to pass either positive or negative judgment on the journalist’s work and credibility.

“The self-regulatory bodies or mechanisms, the media users’ associations and the relevant university departments could publish each year the research done a posteriori on the truthfulness of the information broadcast by the media, comparing the news with the actual facts. This would serve as a barometer of credibility which citizens could use as a guide to the ethical standard achieved by each medium or each section of the media, or even each individual journalist. The relevant corrective mechanisms might simultaneously help improve the manner in which the profession of media journalism is pursued.”

If this Council of Europe resolution had been acted upon, would there have been any need for the Leveson Inquiry, Hacked Off and associated nonsense?

The Council of Europe called for robust self-regulation of the press, with all stakeholders taking part in the process, including consumers of media products: readers, viewers and listeners. Findings of press council investigations would be published by media organisations among their members, and each year there would be released comprehensive media audits, with data on the truthfulness of printed and broadcast information. With such audits one could compare and contrast various publishers and broadcasters, and the records of individual journalists.

Can you imagine it? I can, although I’m sure that some journalists and their employers would shudder at the thought. To my mind it is a case of nothing to hide, nothing to fear, but one which, unusually in this age of big data, does not involve an invasion of privacy. All of us make mistakes, but redemption is not exactly unheard of in our trade.

My only concern is the extent to which media outlets would be obliged to respond in print or on air to complaints made to press regulators. Would, for example, a right of reply extend to commercial concerns or other subjects of news stories and media investigations unhappy with journalists who do their job rather than simply regurgitate press releases? Such objections are commonplace.