The media have no morals
A version of this article was first published: www.ethics.org.au - 3 May 2012
In early October Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas and Intelligence Squared was fortunate hosted a debate on the proposition ‘The media have no morals’. On the positive team were Steven Mayne, Mona Eltahawy and Senator Bob Brown. Against the proposition were Kate Adie, Hamish Macdonald and Julian Burnside QC.
The exposure of ‘phone hacking’ as a journalistic tool within the Murdoch media empire made the debate all the more timely. That scandal, however, was only one lens into some of the more questionable systemic practices of mainstream media institutions. And it was precisely the issue of whether systemic immorality, cultivated by an immoral directorship in ‘some’ media was sufficient to carry the motion in light of many individual instances of moral, well-intended journalism.
Naturally, the team in favour of the motion focused on institutional misdeeds whereas the team against sought examples of integrity by ‘good’ journalists. Before the debate, a poll of the audience suggested 58% for the motion, 18% against and 24% undecided–a substantial preference for the proposition. The debate format allowed several minutes for each speaker, followed by audience questions, and final statements.
Steven Mayne, founder of Crikey.com, was first to depict examples of ‘immoral’ media: Today Tonight, A Current Affair, Women’s Day and New Idea were just some. In fact Mayne suggested the title of the debate should be changed to ‘the Murdoch Empire has no morals’, inferring that the influence of the Murdoch family is sufficient to impute its immoral actions to media as a whole. He argued the Murdochs have debased ethics with page three girls, ethical journalism with phone hacking and balanced journalism with Fox News. He called it profitable right wing propaganda with no moral basis, arguing that Murdoch media’s callous disregard for social cohesion in Australia causes serious damage. With Murdoch in charge of media in Australia, said Mayne, the media have no morals.
Also supporting the motion was Mona Eltahawy, an award winning columnist and international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. She critiqued government influence on media outlets, including Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq war whereby Sunni Muslim casualties were called martyrs, but not Shia nor Kurd. She questioned the decisions behind Al Jazeera’s 24 hours coverage of the Egyptian revolution but the absence of coverage of Bahrain. When asked why, Al Jazeera responded, “They had to make a decision on how important various revolutions were to the region.” Eltahawy, saw that, however, as an institutional decision that some people’s freedom and dignity are more valuable than others. She also noted Qatar’s (Al Jazeera’s host nation) relationship to the US and Israel and the influence of US foreign policy on the directorship of the media outlet.
Finally, Senator Bob Brown, in rebutting the contention that the existence of well intentioned journalists meant the media had (at least some) morals, argued that the problem in media is the corruption at the top. Senator Brown asked, if you’re looking at a church to study its morality, do you look at the alter boy or the bishop? He then gave the most accurate characterisation of the real issue behind the proposition stating,
Of course there are moral people in the media, the real argument is, do the media use its extraordinary power as the fourth estate morally?
And that question, said Senator Brown, belongs with the ‘unlicensed’ men who control the media: Murdoch, Putin, Berlusconi, Mugabi, Edmund Grouse, Alan Bond, Conrad Black and Alan Jones for example. Brown went as far to suggest the possibility of licensing print media in a similar fashion to broadcast, or at least was in favour of an enforceable code of ethics within the industry. Quoting Oscar Wilde to finish, he said,
In olden times they had the rack, today they have the press. Where the King or Queen licensed the rack, its time they licensed the press as well.
Against the proposition, Kate Adie’s arguments were rooted in her years spent as a BBC Foreign Correspondent, claiming that while reporters may not always be the best at their job, the job itself cannot be done properly without principles and ethics: a moral code. She noted that dilemmas emerge sometimes – journalists have to eat and serve up something people like, but the real problem, she claims, is that earning a sufficient crust is no longer enough. And that sort of profit-minded thinking has penetrated media, not at the level of journalists and editors, but only people at the top. Therefore, for Adie, one cannot say all of the media is corrupt. It’s not the machine that has no morality, but those that run the machine.
Hamish Macdonald also passionately opposed the motion. As 2008 Young Journalist of the Year and having worked for Al Jazeera and the George Negus show on Channel 10, he represented himself as one of the good guys. He continued the opposition’s line that the debate was not whether there is no immorality within media, but rather whether the media have any morality at all. The best evidence of morality in the media, he argued, was that failures of the media were exposed not by police nor politicians, but by journalists. He argued, “while Today Tonight and A Current Affair might serve up crap about wonderbras, there are still journalists who’ll tell you that if a refugee goes to Malaysia they’re going to have a hard time”. When questioned why Channel 10 supports Andrew Bolt, he insisted that because only 25,000 people watch Bolt’s show and more than 500,000 watch George Negus, the evidence of immorality or a right wing agenda simply does not stand up. Words he may want to reflect on since Channel 10’s canning of George Negus’ show for ‘commercial reasons’ and maintaining Bolt in his Sunday timeslot.
Finally Julian Burnside QC brought his advocacy skills to the opposition’s argument. Representing the motion as an ‘extreme’ position, he claimed that if the debate were that some of the media have morals some of the time, the arguments may be different. He gave examples of talented journalists such as Edward Murray who brought down the McCarthy campaign and Nick Davies at the Guardian who doggedly pursued the phone hacking story. He argued it may be true that media standards could improve but that was not the issue of the debate. The opposition gave examples of media at their best, whereas all the other side did was give examples of media at their worst, and that did not resolve the issue in favour of the proposition. When asked whether there was a disparity in the significance of the examples because instances of media behaving badly were at the directorial level, whereas examples of media behaving well were at the individual level, he gave the very well received but somewhat non sequitur response that we had to ask, “What would happen if the media shut down entirely? Would we be better or worse off?”
It seems the opposition’s arguments had sufficient currency to carry the day despite the unfavourable position of the audience prior to the debate. Final results were undecided 4%, for the motion 45% and against 51%. The result may have been against the proposition, but arguably just on semantic understandings of the topic. Of course it is impossible to prove the absence of morality within the media entirely, but I think if asked again whether the audience believed, on the whole, news media were made up of moral institutions, the voting would be less decisive.