Tuesday 3 January 2012

Harcup: How a conscience clause for journalists could help fill the ethical vacuum in the newsroom

In a forthcoming book of articles on the phone hacking scandal, journalist and academic Tony Harcup (pictured) argues that given the "ethical vacuum" in some newsrooms post-Wapping it is time to give the NUJ's proposal for a conscience clause a try.

The NUJ argues that journalists need a conscience clause in their work contracts to protect them from being sacked if they refuse to do unethical journalism.

Harcup, who teaches and researches journalism at the University of Sheffield, writes: "The NUJ – under the leadership of former Express MoC Michelle Stanistreet, who in 2011 became the union’s general secretary – has used its presence at the Leveson Inquiry to once again raise the issue of a conscience clause.

"Given the climate created by Hackgate it is possible that the NUJ may now be pushing at a door that, if not exactly open, might be unlocked. Or at least less heavily bolted to keep it out. That being so, it is worth asking whether adding such a clause to journalists’ codes of practice could help to protect ethical journalism. The short answer is that we will never know unless we try it; the slightly longer answer is that the evidence points towards a qualified yes.

"It is not that a conscience clause would be a magic solution to what are perceived as journalism’s ethical shortcomings; it is not that all citizens nor indeed all journalists would necessarily agree on what those shortcomings might be; and it is not that such a clause would eliminate the grey areas of interpretation that are often where the real choices are made.

"Such a clause would be very unlikely to be ‘top of mind’ for the vast majority of journalists the vast majority of the time, and the chances are that it would be used very, very rarely if ever. But – and this certainly is a big but – its mere existence could help contribute to a healthier workplace culture within newsrooms in which questions can sometimes be asked and objections can occasionally be voiced without the foot soldiers of journalism (lowly reporters and photographers) fearing a verbal onslaught at best and being shown the door at worst."

Harcup adds: "The Leveson Inquiry heard allegations that a culture of bullying at the News of the World may have been one factor in the creation of a climate of fear and silence where ethical malpractice may have been concerned. In contrast, a workplace in which ethical concerns can be discussed by journalists both informally and formally if felt necessary, on either an individual or collective basis, can surely only be good for journalism and ethics alike. Isn’t the essence of journalism supposed to be about asking questions?"

He concludes: "A conscience clause as proposed by the NUJ, offering journalists some form of contractual protection, might be one small step in the direction of making such questioning more possible for more journalists than it has been in recent years.

"Such a clause could be added to the existing PCC editors’ code or to the code of any successor body that emerges post-Leveson and, while we are at it, why not to the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, the BBC Editorial Guidelines, and to the internal codes of those news organisations that issue their own? Precisely how it would be framed, worded and enforced would clearly require careful thought. However, it might be that the precise details could turn out to be of less significance than the symbolic value of such a clause because, even if it were to be rarely invoked, knowledge of its existence could help to empower journalists.

"Such knowledge could provoke a moment of reflection by any or all involved in the editorial process and that moment could turn out to have been a crucial one. You never know, such a pause for reflection might just be enough to prevent the next distasteful, unseemly or repugnant outrage at source before any damage is done either to the target or to journalism. It might facilitate the nipping in the bud of what could have grown into unethical journalism, before anyone is harmed, before it becomes a crisis, before judges and lawyers are once again brought in to pick through journalism’s dirty laundry basket in public.

"A conscience clause will not heal all of journalism’s ills. It is a fairly modest proposal, addressing just one element of the complex relationship between ethics and journalism. But, given the ethical vacuum that appears to have been created in certain newsrooms by the almost totally unconstrained management prerogative that followed Rupert Murdoch’s victory at Wapping in 1986, isn’t it time we gave it a try?"

Harcup also notes: "Back in 1931, the NUJ had appealed to newspaper proprietors and editors alike to refrain from instructing staff to use ‘distasteful and unseemly’ methods of covering stories or getting pictures, and the union went on to promise ‘to treat the case of a member who was dismissed for refusing to carry out instructions repugnant to his sense of decency, as one of victimization, ie to maintain him while getting fresh employment’.

"Shortly afterwards the NUJ established its code of ethical conduct for journalists, becoming the first body in the UK to do so; a good half century before national newspaper editors gathered in the backroom of the ‘last chance saloon’ to write their own code."

  • 'THE PHONE HACKING SCANDAL; JOURNALISM ON TRIAL': Edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair, Arima Publishing, Bury St Edmunds, will be published in February 2012. Available via Amazon.

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