When newspapers hide the truth from their readers to avoid displeasing advertisers, as Peter Oborne alleges the Telegraph has done, they are not breaching the Editors’ Code of Practice.
This is not really a fault in the Code (though it has many, not least of which is that it is the editors’ code and not the journalists’ code). Even a proper code would hardly be likely to reach that far.
A proper code would almost certainly have to limit itself to two areas: first, what has been published, and second, how journalists should behave in pursuit of stories. Decisions by editors not to publish articles don’t fit.
However, this does not mean that a truly effective and genuinely independent self-regulator (and IPSO is miles from being either) could never make a difference in such a case, nor that it would be unable to prevent such problems from arising.
One simple and practical way was recommended in the Leveson Report: there should be a means by which whistleblowers can alert the industry to a serious problem without risking the sack, or having to resign as Oborne has done.
Of course, the cartel of big newspaper proprietors don’t want that. So much do they hate the idea that when newspaper journalists wanted to give evidence to Leveson about newsroom abuses with their identity protected, the Daily Mail actually went to court in an attempt to prevent it.
And when the proprietors and editors first drafted the plans for IPSO in their Royal Charter, they didn’t bother with a whistleblowers’ hotline. After that embarrassment, they pledged in July 2013 that they would. But when IPSO opened 14 months later there was no hotline. 6 months later still no hotline. Now they say they may introduce one, but what journalist would be mad enough to call IPSO when it is owned body and soul by the abusers?
Whistleblowing, however, is only a part of the answer. Our big national newspapers are bleeding trust because so many have low ethical standards. They have low ethical standards because they are unaccountable – there is nothing to stop them.
Suppressing news because it might affect advertising revenue is an ethical issue and it would not happen at any paper that recognised the ethical duties and obligations of journalists.
As Peter Oborne wrote, papers have ‘a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth’, and that does not mean a commercially convenient fraction of the truth.
Accountability to an effective and independent self-regulator would raise the ethical bar inside newsrooms. For a start, journalists would be less likely to write lies if they knew that they and their papers would be held publicly accountable for them.
More generally, ethics would become more important in newsroom discussions. Editors, reporters and sub-editors would pause more often to consider whether an action might breach the code, and yes, sometimes journalists would feel more empowered to refuse to do things that were obviously code breaches.
In such a newsroom, where due weight was given to ethical considerations, editors or other executives would find it more difficult to justify suppressing stories on the grounds that they might affect advertising revenue.
No doubt, given the power they often wield, the executives would sometimes get their way, but it would not be without challenge, and the parties would be clear that an ethical line had been crossed.
In the ethics-free, accountability-free, responsibility-free zones that are so many newsrooms of today, managements can avoid any such discussion and often-compromised journalists will rarely make a stand. Effective, independent self-regulation can surely change that.
And just as IPSO can’t deliver a whistleblower hotline that reporters would trust, so it can’t deliver the accountability needed to foster more ethical newsrooms at our biggest national papers. IPSO is the tool and property of the big proprietors and editors; they neither fear it nor respect it.
It’s touching that Brian Cathcart believes an effective whistleblowing hotline would have forced the Telegraph to publish something it didn’t want to. He obviously hasn’t thought very hard about this though.
Let’s imagine a truly independent whistleblowing hotline that has no ties to newspapers, the government, the police or lawyers, and can’t be tapped by GCHQ. Let’s then imagine that an editor spikes a story because her proprietors don’t want it published. Who then rings the hotline? The reporter who wrote the story? Who else would bother? It wouldn’t be terribly hard for the editorial executives to guess where the complaint had come from. Say hello to a short career in newspapers. It doesn’t really matter all that much how independent the hotline is – what matters is whether or not a whistleblower believes they can avoid suffering any consequences by speaking out.
The fact is that anonymous whistleblowing can work in large organisations where the information could have come from a wide variety of people, but since even the biggest newsroom in Fleet Street has fewer than 100 staff that’s next to impossible. If Brian Cathcart had spent much time in journalism he would recognise that good reporters take great pains to conceal the identity of their sources, and this includes figuring out whether or not they might inadvertently identify someone simply by asking a particular question, or letting slip a piece of information that is known to only a few people. Few people understand the risks of speaking out as well as reporters. Peter Oborne could do it because he has a big enough reputation to get a job somewhere else in short order. Richard Peppiatt could do it because he was leaving journalism. Those are the options. Thinking otherwise is fantasy.
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