In a recent post I expressed the view that there was “something particularly wrong and distasteful about kiss-and-tells.” I explained that I was referring to situations in which money was paid to someone for a story about something private which is only of interest to the tabloid because it relates to a well-known person. . The journalist and researcher Judith Townend commented on my post, asking “how should financial transactions of private information be managed in a new system of regulation?” This is my response.
Before looking at payment for private information it is worth looking at payment of sources more generally. Payment for stories has become so much part of English journalistic culture that many find it impossible to imagine things being done in any other way. It is important to remember that this is not the only way of doing journalism.
The ethics committee of the US Society of Professional Journalists has repeatedly condemned the payment of sources “Paying someone while covering them breaches basic journalism ethics.” The well respected Code of Practice for the “Age” newspaper in Australia provides:
“The Age does not condone chequebook journalism. It will disclose any instance when it has paid for information. Payment for information should be avoided, unless an appropriate senior editor believes there is a strong public interest and there is no alternative to payment. In cases where payment is deemed by the Editor to be in the public interest, the fact of payment should be published. ”
This is where I think that any new system of regulation should draw the boundary.
In general, the trade in private information is both morally and legally wrong. Just like a newspaper should not, normally, pay to acquire stolen property, it should not usually pay to acquire private information.
I am speaking here primarily about so-called “kiss & tell” stories and leaks of sexual, medical or family information. This kind of information should not usually be bought and sold. Forbidding conduct of this kind will remove temptation. If one cannot be paid for information relating to another’s private life the incentive for intruding will often be removed. It will even have a positive effect against would-be blackmailers, removing an incentive.
All this must, of course, be subject to public interest exceptions. To me, it is as obvious that the public should be told about the dodgy financial dealings of the politician as it is that they should not be told about the sexual peccadillos of the sportsman.
Proper investigative journalism, which exposes for example serious crime or corruption, has nothing to fear. The press has a vital role in this regard. In legitimate public interest cases journalists should be permitted to pay for private information. As with the Age code such payments should be signed off by a senior editor.
Most of the time those who are looking to trade personal information with the press are only of interest to the press because of a relationship (whether personal or professional) they had or have with someone who is thought to be “newsworthy”. Unless there is a legitimate public interest then private information should only be disclosed with the consent of everyone involved.
This is, I think, something which a new regulatory code should spell out. Payment for stories should only be made when there is no alternative and the public interest requires it. Is this really an unfair proposal? Of course not, and it is in fact the law, despite it being largely ignored by the tabloids.
One other thought. The press rightly promotes transparency in business and government. Another area where transparency is needed is in journalism. If the only way to get a public interest story is to pay a source then that should be permitted. But why shouldn’t the media also disclose the fact that payment has been made? And, unless there is some good reason to the contrary, why shouldn’t the amount also be disclosed?
These are modest proposals but they would, I think, greatly improve the quality of British journalism. The reporter would, once again, have to result to old fashioned investigation – without hacking, blagging or use of the chequebook.