This paper analyses a case resolved by the Britain Press Complaints Commission. The case analysis shows clearly that journalistic code of practice was not adhered to by the journal in question. Codes of practice or conduct are important self regulatory tools at the disposal of journalists. The complaints councils play an important role as arbitrator.
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When a complaint is lodged with the press complaints commissions or councils, they endeavor to resolve it amicably. The alternative is to press libel charges, which are often expensive to prosecute and defend. This paper, therefore, clearly points to self regulation and passing of friendly media laws as the only sure way of guaranteeing journalistic freedom.
Journalists are supposed to do their work guided by ethics or general principles that defines good practice. Every practicing journalist is often affiliated to a journalistic body which is bound to a given code of conduct. Codes of conduct aim at ensuring journalists seek only to establish truth in a fair, accurate and objective manner.
The other aspect of journalism that is often misused or compromised is accountability to the public (Alia, 149). Journalism is not supposed to serve any vested interest. Rather, the aim of journalistic endeavors should be feeding the general public with accurate, objective information.
Information helps create a public sphere or interaction between members of a republic. In the recent past, capacity to share information world wide in a fast and easy way has created a sense of international citizenship (Alia, 147). This is positive and desirable, however, any distortion of truth or misinformation bring to a public a lot of harm. Sometimes harm does not come to the whole public but rather to individuals; they loose a livelihood or reputation.
Journalistic codes are tools for guiding journalists wade through situations that present conflicting interests (Alia, 63). The codes contribute to self regulation of individual journalists in the media industry. In case of a dilemma, most codes indicate clearly what the most ethical course of action would be. Information on minors, reports on security and people suspected of crime have to be properly censored (Alia, 52).
The challenge is to balance between the need to keep the public informed while protecting the subjects from any possibility of unjust or unfair harm as a result of the report. If reports on a crime are not handled sensitively, they easily damage individual’s reputations or cost institutions a lot of money.
To entrench self regulation, complaints councils have evolved or been established within journalistic circles. These councils are guided by given codes of conduct in resolving complaints lodged before them. One council I am familiar with is the British Press Complaints Council (PCC).
The PCC defines itself as “an independent body which deals with complaints from members of the public about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines” (Press Complaints Commission, 1). Since its inception to date, the council has dealt with many complaints. The PCC website states that they dealt with 4, 698 complaints in the year 2008 alone. One of the recent complaints or cases they handled was called “A man v Press & Journal” (Press Complaints Commission, 1).
In this case “A man complained that the newspaper had published a series of articles reporting on his trial, posting false messages on an internet site, but had failed to cover his acquittal ” (Press Complaints Commission, 1). The newspaper had been keen to report on his trial, particularly posting false information on their internet site, but they did not care to cover his acquittal.
There are number ethical issues in this case; the most critical ones are fairness, objectivity and accuracy. Accuracy is a crucial element of journalistic work. Without accuracy, journalism as a profession looses meaning. In the current age, accuracy and objectivity is a big challenge.
This is occasioned by cut throat competition in the media. Secondly as Harsin (89), puts it “corporate mergers have increased the pressure towards speed and expanding viewer – and readership, and the demand for ever increasing profit”. Speed is the key thing in reporting in this new age. However, due to the required speed the information gathering procedures and method have changed (Harsin, 87).
The catchier the news items, the more audience or readership a broadcasting station or newspaper attracts. The journalist of this age is faced with the great challenge of balancing between speed and need for accuracy (Peterson & Wilkins, 260). The more a news channel or newspaper releases information that is accurate, verifiable, the more reliable it becomes in the eyes of consumers thus increasing its credibility. According to Chomsky (46), journalists have to go beyond selective perception as to present holistic pictures or accounts.
Journalism as a profession is depended on given methods of news gathering and information verification such that accurate accounts of given happenings or phenomena can be established. When reporting on issues whose veracity is not yet fully clear, journalists are expected to exercise diligence (Peterson & Wilkins, 244). Issues have to be contextualized and the possibility of error well hinted or defined.
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When reporting on a crime, the principle of the suspect being innocent until proved quilt has to be respected by journalists. The PCC code of practice states that “The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.” This is to mean that although freedom of press is respected, when press takes a partisan position, it should clearly indicate such.
A press cannot be accused of defamation if what they report is truth. People have a right to privacy thus reporting about individuals needs to respect their privacy. There is need to balance right of individuals to privacy with need for informing the public accurately. Where individuals are concerned, libel is only occasioned when false information is published.
Accuracy is that important, unless it is employed in journalistic practice, persons are harmed and media looses much money in libel suits. In the case of ‘A man v Press & Journal’, the man had a right to complain because the press had published falsehoods against him on the internet.
Objectivity is of critical essence in reporting (Peterson & Wilkins, 74). There is need to weigh and balance interests and report only relevant facts. Price (1) quoting the Australian High Court, emphasizes the contribution of media towards fair trials. The high court ruled that “First, it is not the fact that allegations of serious criminal conduct usually become known to the public only as a result of charges and subsequent conviction.
On the contrary, the process often works in reverse: charges and subsequent conviction often result from the publication of allegations of serious criminal conduct.” Journalists are expected to adhere to the principle of harm limitation (Alia, 215). The press ought to be compassionate towards those being cast in bad light due to given happenings. Therefore, journalists should not approach reporting with fool hardy arrogance but rather with wisdom and understanding.
In the case of reporting on a crime, unless necessary by some reason, journalists need not even mention the names of people in the crime. When reporting on a trial, journalists need to balance between the trial rights of the suspect and public need for information (Peterson & Wilkins, 142). In the case of ‘A man v Press & Journal’, the reporters were not objective. They did not present facts in a balanced way.
The other ethical issue in the case of ‘A man v Press & Journal’ is fairness. The journal had written articles about the trial but did not report about his acquittal. Fairness demanded that having informed the public about his alleged crimes, the press also informs the public about his acquittal from the charges.
The PCC resolves issues in a number of ways. The goal of council intervention is to establish if there has been breach of conduct, to help towards amicably resolution of issue and to ensure the newspaper of journal does not repeat the same mistake.
Once an issue has been determined, it is often resolved either by “the publication of a correction or an apology; a follow-up piece or letter from the complainant; a private letter of apology from the editor; an undertaking as to future conduct by the newspaper; or the annotation of the publication’s records to ensure that the error is not repeated” (Press Complaints Commission, 1).
All or some of the given courses of action are taken to ensure the complainant is satisfied. A formal publication helps to correct the wrong message or information fed to the public, the private apology appeases the complainant while other efforts are put in place to ensure mistake is not repeated. The council ensures sufficient remedial action has duly been taken by the newspaper or journal in question.
The case of ‘A man v Press & Journal’ was resolved by the newspaper publishing a follow up article explaining the complainant’s acquittal and compensation for false accusation (Press Complaints Commission, 1). Further “The editor also wrote to the complainant, apologizing that the newspaper had not previously published the outcome of his trial” (Press Complaints Commission, 1). The article and formal apology resolved the matter in tandem with the PCC’s Code of Practice.
The Code stipulates that “A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published” (Press Complaints Commission, 1). The actions taken by the editor with mediation of council resolved the case.
In the case studied, complaint was lodged with the Press Complaints Commission. The alternative would have been to lodge defamation or libel charges against the journal. All around the world, libel charges carry very tough penalties in the form of jail sentence or damages. It has been widely argued that libel laws are a major limitation to press freedom.
In some countries, libel laws are so stringent that wielding a criticism or different opinion about given individuals or institutions amounts to being sued for defamation (Alia, 173). Libel charges are more in countries that have autocratic or authoritarian leadership. In such like countries, draconian laws govern press freedom gagging any form of view points that do not support the status quo (Alia, 174).
In the developed world, Britain was singled out by the UN as having libel laws that stifle freedom of expression because they favored complainants (Verkaik, 1). Many businessmen and celebrities turned to UK courts to press libel charges that often earned them a lot of cash as damages. This scenario was famously labeled as “libel tourism” in a report by the UN’s Committee on Human rights (Verkaik, 1). There are many foreign national who have sued UK media and gained handsomely from the lawsuits.
It is argued by journalists that libel cases do not warranty reporters being thrown into prison. Journalists argue that defamation should not be treated under criminal law. It is only criminal offences that warranty imprisonment or incarceration. Therefore, in as much as journalists ought to be ethical in the work, society ought to support journalism through the kind of laws it promulgates.
One way of avoiding libel suits has been through establishment of complaint bodies such as the British Press Complaints commission. This is an effort at self regulation within the Media so that media does not loose credence through defamation or loose money unfairly through lawsuits.
Media laws in most countries acknowledge privacy as a personal right that ought to be respected by others. Unless the complaints council are efficient and effective enough in resolving individual’s complaints, the only other recourse are libel suits. Defending against a libel suit is expensive; as a result most media houses opt to settle outside courts (Peterson & Wilkins, 154). Libel has killed investigative journalism because producing corroborative evidence would require blowing informants cover (Peterson & Wilkins, 257).
In conclusion, it is clear that Media Complaint Councils are doing a great job ensuring media is ethical. Their methods of arbitration lead to amicable resolving of complaints. Self regulation in media is necessary; otherwise media is gagged. Libel laws seek to ensure that journalists are objective, accurate and fair. In the same spirit, media laws need to be fair, objective and well refined. The two sides of media ethics (self regulation and legislation) when well balanced guarantee journalistic freedom in any given state.
Alia Valerie. Media Ethics and Social Change. New York: Routledge. 2004.
Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda.2nd Ed. New York: Seven Stories Press. 2002.
Harsin, Jayson. The Rumour Bomb: Theorizing the Convergence of New and Old Trends in Mediated US Politics. Southern Review: Communication, Politics & Culture; Volume 39, Issue 1; 2006.
Patterson, Philip & Wilkinson, Lee: Media Ethics: Issues and Cases. 6th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2008.
Press Complaints Commission. Editors’ Code of Practice. Web.
Press Complaints Commission. A man v Press & Journal. Web.
Price Stephen. Media Law Journal. Web.
Verkaik Robert, Britain’s Libel Laws Are Stifling Free Speech, Says UN. Thursday, 14 August 2008. Web.