I sent this email to the Media Alliance today.
Dear Media Alliance,
Last night’s Media Watch discussed the ethical dispute among journalists over the ethics of recording interviewees without their permission. The dispute shows serious disagreement on the matter. The Age believes it is always ethical. Some others, including me, believe it it permissible only in exceptional circumstances:
— 📣Margo Kingston💧🔥 (@margokingston1) July 29, 2014
After some debate among journalists on Twitter, I commissioned media law and ethics professor Mark Pearson, who writes the No Fibs media column, to state his opinion. The result, Selling out ethical journalism: @journlaw on @theage secret recordings, served to open a wider debate on the matter, and I believe it is time for the Alliance to get involved.
As a long-time member of the Alliance who breached ethics early in my career through sheer ignorance, I have long advocated discussion, debate and resolution of ethical issues as they arise, not by way of punishment, but to strengthen our profession (See my 2002 speech to a corruption conference, Ethics overboard: Promoting integrity in the moment of choice).
It is a matter of ongoing frustration to me that unlike passionate debates on the question ‘What is a journalist?’ overseas, there is virtual silence in Australia. As journalists, professional and citizen, we cannot argue for special protections and exemptions from privacy laws unless we can distinguish ourselves from non-journalists. To me, a commitment to professional ethics is a core requirement of anyone wishing to describe themselves as ‘a journalist’, and yet there is little guidance or discussion on what they are.
Last year the Canberra Press Gallery Committee (PGC) refused membership to a journalist wishing to write for a new media publication, and it emerged that there were no written requirements for membership. The Committee promised to remedy this extraordinary insider practice, and I urged it to include a requirement that the applicant commit to acting in accordance with a reputable code of ethics. In The Press Gallery contemplates reform, in May, 2013, I wrote:
“I feel that journalists, not media employers, are the true representatives of the 4th Estate, because, like judges, members of the government and parliamentarians, they are meant to contribute to the health of democracy. As the recent Senate Inquiry into media reform proved, media employers in the private sector believe their sole objective is to maximise profits. Journalists, not employers, have personal responsibility for complying with the ethical codes of their ‘profession’. Thus it has always been journalists, not their employers, who have pushed hard for ethical accountability through external bodies like the Press Council and internal mechanisms like charters of editorial independence and employer commitments to ethical practice.
“The Press Gallery Committee has, perhaps by accident, real power, which is a highly unusual state of affairs for journalists. They thus have the opportunity, at a time when reform of the PGC is necessary, to shape it in a way which empowers ethical journalism in traditional and new media, and thus makes the case for the special privileges granted to journalists, including exemption from privacy laws and protection from disclosing sources, to continue and be strengthened.
“The Media Alliance this week announced a new membership scheme under which social media can sign up to its code of ethics. This innovation would allow the PGC to include as a requirement for membership that applicants have committed themselves to and will comply with a credible code of journalistic ethics, whether or not they chose to be an Alliance member.
“In my dreams the PGC would consider ethical complaints, perhaps via volunteer elders of journalism who have retired. The object would not be to punish, or even to adjudicate, but to publish considered opinions on ethical issues as they arise in practice for the purpose of informing and enriching ethical debate.
“Ideally the issue of ethical journalism and its promotion will be addressed for all journalists one day. I feel that compliance with an ethical code is the main signifier of a journalist, and must be strengthened as part of our effort to save the profession/art/craft from extinction.”
(The Press Gallery committee has not taken up my ideas, and its revised requirements are still very vague.)
I also believe the Media Alliance can and should take charge of the journalist ethics debate to help members and strengthen the profession. I therefore request that it seek input from members with a view to publishing a practice statement on the ethics of recording private conversations with interviewees.
The purpose 0f this would not be to pass judgement on the conduct of a journalist, but to settle the issue, enhance journalism’s standing and address what I consider to be the startling defence by The Age of secret surveillance by journalists.
As a practitioner collaborating with citizen journalists, who I require to comply with the Media Alliance code of ethics, I feel your intervention would also be appreciated by citizens seeking to ethically practice journalism, and may well encourage them to become members of a dynamic, interactive Alliance.