Ethics after Leveson

In a new book edited by John Mair, After Leveson? The Future for British Journalism, Phil Harding, former controller of editorial policy at the BBC, recommends mid-career ethical training for all journalists.

After the scandals that led to Leveson, it may be that practical media ethics is now about to take off as have medical and business ethics over the last few decades. But Harding’s suggestions will face the same sort of objections as did the teaching of ethics in these areas as they began to emerge. Here are three of the most common, with some responses.

(1) Journalists are out for a story at any cost. There’s absolutely no point in teaching them ethics.

It is of course true that there will be cynically self-interested individuals in journalism as in any other area of human activity. But even these individuals can be brought face-to-face with the arguments in Plato and Hobbes for choosing a policy of doing the right thing to avoid the sanctions for wrongdoing. And on the face of it there seems no reason to think that the proportion of people of at least reasonably good will working in journalism is so low that the teaching of ethics is likely to be a waste of time.

(2) Ethical teaching is for the young. As Aristotle pointed out, once our characters are formed it is too late for us to change.

This objection is somewhat pessimistic about the prospects of ethical reform, and its reading of Aristotle is also, I think, too gloomy. Aristotle was pointing out merely that you can’t change merely through an act of will; it can be done, but it takes time. So ethical teaching might lead to reform in some cases. But that is anyway not its main point. One of its central aims should be to sensitize, strengthen, and focus existing ethical dispositions. If some mid-career journalist finds that some of her peers – people she admires and takes seriously – believe that, say, respecting the privacy of others is something that really matters, she may well reflect critically on her own practice, and change it in response to that reflection. As Harding points out, this means that ethical training should not be outsourced, though it may perhaps be overseen by the Press Complaints Commission. Perhaps the main result one might hope for would be the creation of a newsroom atmosphere in which ethical issues are salient and seen as important. Ethical training is as much to do with shaping organizations as affecting individuals within them.

(3) There’s so much disagreement about ethics — it couldn’t possibly be taught.

It’s true that there is huge philosophical disagreement about the underlying principles of ethics. There is the split between consequentialists and deontologists, for example, and then the split between act-consequentialists and rule-consequentialists, or contractualist and Rossian deontologists, and so on and on. But in fact there is a great deal of agreement about which actions are right and wrong – about what some have called ‘middle principles’.  Respect for privacy, for example, is likely to be required by all of the theories I’ve just mentioned, and indeed many others. If anything, seeing that there are so many ways of supporting these middle principles might lead a person to take them even more seriously than she might have done. Ethical education will put senior journalists in a better position to make up their own minds about philosophical ethics, and to use their understanding to reflect about what to do in cases in which there is genuine practical disagreement between the theories, or indeterminacy. Harding is right to claim that journalistic institutions with this kind of ethical training at their centre are more likely to win the trust of the public, and hence to do better in the market. Similar claims have now been largely accepted by those responsible for training in medicine and business. I see no reason why we shouldn’t expect the same now to happen in the media.

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