The ethics of journalism

THE LEVESON inquiry is about to report and the media is full of expectation of recommendations for stronger legal controls on the press and media and debates about the need to defend a “free” press while protecting people whose lives have been wrecked by unwarranted intrusion and vilification by the gutter press.

As communists our hopes are not high regarding the outcome of the inquiry. Leveson, like Lord Hutton who presided over the inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly, has been carefully chosen not to rock any boats or frighten the ruling classes.

The first essential for any communist in trying to understand a complex situation is to look at the class perspectives. And the first thing we must note is that there is no truly independent free press at all in our decaying imperialist society. It is all owned by the ruling class. But the ruling class is not united; there are the very right-wing and anti-European Union press barons like Murdoch who have been able to patronise and/or intimidate our elected governments. And there are the so-called independents like the Independent and the Guardian. They belong to a different faction of the ruling class that is pro-Europe and more liberal. But, at heart they are all anti-socialist. They will pity and patronise hard up workers in distress but never support organised workers fighting back through their unions. But it is these papers that lead the field in exposing the dirty work of papers like News of the World. Bourgeois journalists defending the ethics of the trade through good investigative journalism.

Journalism is at the moment in crisis. Few newspapers or magazines now employ much in the way of regular staff. Writers and photographers are forced into being self-employed freelancers, seeking out commissions and hawking their skills in blogs and on social networking websites. Their income is very precarious as commissioning editors tend to prefer the freebie photos and writing they are sent by amateurs, for whom seeing their name in print is payment enough. Quality no longer counts. Even those who do have regular work have a very precarious hold on those jobs.

So it is very easy for editors to bully journalists into a culture of ignoring ethical guidelines. Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, told the Leveson inquiry that power in any newspaper is held firmly at the top:

“At the heart of any newspaper culture is the editor — what he or she says goes. For anyone who's worked in a newsroom, the concept of an editor who didn't know just what their troops were getting up to is laughable. Editors rule the roost.

“They set the tone — not just in the editorial line of their newspapers but in the way that the newsroom operates. What's accepted, what's not; the tone of an editorial conference; whether bullying — sadly commonplace — goes unchecked; the dispensing of praise or the nature of the inevitable roasting when the goods aren't delivered.

“To imagine editors as mere bystanders whose underling reporters run rings round them would be fanciful in the extreme. That's why, to anyone with any journalistic nous, the peddling of the line that hacking was the action of a ‘single rogue reporter’ operating in splendid isolation was as daft as it was unbelievable.”

She went on to point out that Murdoch, by blocking his workers from union membership, left the vulnerable to intensive bullying. On the other hand, from her own experience, journalists from the Daily Express have grown steadily more uneasy a few years ago when the paper led issue after issue with anti-immigration stories, approaching open incitement to race hatred — because it increased sales. The journalists took collective action and refused to continue along this path. They were able to do this because they stood together and had their union behind them.

Journalists do not begin their careers wanting to spread lies and hatred but they can be bullied into breaking the code of journalistic ethics if they are not part of the union. If they are union members they can refuse any work that is unethical and the union will support them.

If Leveson really wants to clean up dirty journalism while protecting the freedom of the press he should look to protecting union rights for journalists and enshrining in law the right of any journalist to refuse to take on unethical work without fear of reprisals or financial penalties from their boss.