Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Ethics of Journalism in light of the Jan Moir PCC Cop Out

Well you can't really call it a judgment, can you?

The fact that the complaint has not been upheld does not mean the concerns did not need to be addressed, but rather that the Commission did not find that it was right for it to censure the newspaper on the grounds of the Code.

How can the Press Complaints Commission have any credibility at all after publishing a sentence like that? Basically it's saying "ok, you were wrong, but we ain't going to do anything about it."

It's hardly surprising, really, when you see who makes up the Commission - almost half its membership have current close ties to the media industry, so it's hardly what you could call impartial.

Stephen , Andrew and particularly the lovely elephant have done a good job of analysing the actual substance of the judgment but I wanted to take that a stage further and have a look at what exactly a journalist has to do in order to have a complaint against them upheld and what that could mean for the ethics of journalism in the future.

Well, if you print that someone is pregnant and they are, then you get a complaint upheld. If you assert that "healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again" despite evidence to the contrary, then that's fine because it's not as if it could be read as "exhaustive medical fact." Having said that, I think the papers should, out of courtesy, have held off in Dannii Minogue's case and I now have a better understanding of why she chose to officially announce her pregnancy on Twitter.

It's fine to draw outrageous parallels in your article, connecting tragic events that have no relation to or bearing on each other because "the fact that a newspaper had published what might be considered to be an illogical argument (connecting two entirely separate individuals and seeking to draw a general conclusion) in itself did not equate to a breach of the Code." Even if those parallels try to lead the reader into drawing conclusions that are not the truth about a person.

It's not intrusion into private grief unless you actually make a nuisance of yourself at the funeral. A hatchet job for the grieving family to read the day before is perfectly acceptable.

It's not discrimination unless you actually use some pejorative words. So, because Moir didn't use any of the universally known homophobic terms of abuse, her insinuations that being gay is somehow inherently unhealthy and sleazy isn't in any way bigoted or prejudiced. It was the same in the judgement in Iain Dale's case. So if you want to be racist, you don't use the awful N or P words, you just make sure you never print the word asylum seeker without the word bogus next to it. Nobody can get you for that.

Being of a liberal persuasion, I'm all for free speech and expression. I was never comfortable with the no platform policies espoused by the Labour Party, for example. I'd much rather see controversial issues debated - it's a bit of an antidote to prejudice. However, there are limits - when there are attempts to incite hatred against groups of people, well, there are laws against that. There are limits, though, and I think that Jan Moir's article and its subsequent two fingers worth of an apology were well on the wrong side of the line.

It would be much healthier if the press were judged not by its peers, who have a clear financial interest in maintaining the status quo -a bit like bankers, really, but by a much more independent and robust body which was prepared to challenge the cosy, hypocritical and poisonous hegemony of newspaper editors and enforce integrity, quality and ethics onto the profession.


Indy said...

I found this ruling really difficult to understand. A lot of people are defending it on the basis that she has a right to free speech and you can’t punish someone just for saying something offensive. I think that is correct – I am not in favour of censoring opinion because opinion is by its nature subjective and you can’t say whether it is “true” or “false”. You can just agree or disagree. But in this case she didn’t write an article which gave her opinions on gay people in general. She attached her opinions to the death of a real person and in the course of it said things about him which were demonstrably false. To me that is surely quite straightforward. Journalists tells lies = journalist is wrong. I just don’t see how you can argue, as the Press Complaints Commission appears to be doing, that facts are subjective, that she is entitled to say that someone died an “unnatural death” and imply that is connected with his being gay or alleged drug use when in fact he died of a congenital heart defect. A journalist who uses false information to support an argument is just plain wrong and should withdraw their comments.

LJH said...

I've also heard it defended on the grounds of free speech but I'm really not sure I agree.

There is a point where we have to balance our right to say anything we like against the rights of others not to be exposed to the corrosive and silencing effects of hate speech.

This principle is already enshrined in law - Ms Moir was not free to write an overtly racist article in the same vein - and she may have had problems defending her right to speak about a disabled person in the way she did about Mr Gateley.

The common factor? No-one chooses their skin colour, their level of ability or, crucially, their sexuality.

it is also arguable that by making some rules about how we express ourselves in the public square that society guarantees the free-est possible amount of speech for the largest number of people.

Personally I think she crossed the line into hate speech and the judgement was ridiculous.


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