Ethics – that’s a county, innit?

Report on the Media Society Debate 14 May 03, published in Profile

Ethics – that’s a county, innit?

Dateline 14 May 2003

As the IPR and the Global Alliance struggle with the concept of internationally applicable ethics in PR, it is gratifying to see a group of journalists openly debate whether such considerations apply to them.

The meeting was opened by Donald Trelford from the chair, who began by admitting that the title “Ethics – that’s a county, innit?” was not so much a quote from Kelvin MacKenzie as a paraphrase of something he once said. During this Kelvin was shaking his head, as though to deny that even the longer version was accurate, and I began to wonder if this was part of the problem.

Kelvin MacKenzie was the first panellist to speak. He began by robustly declaiming that he could only speak with any knowledge about popular newspapers, as he had never worked on one with fewer than 3.5 million sales: “I don’t know what it is like to work on a paper that is essentially unwanted in our society”. His experience in radio has taught him the disadvantages of licensing arrangements, which he rejected for newspapers and would prefer to see dropped in broadcasting: “the unlicensed mind can say what it likes”. He strongly insisted that newspapers don’t publish stories they know to be untrue and defended the role of proprietors, insisting that it is only common sense that editors should deliver the product that owners want – just as factory managers do. The principal constraint is that if you get it badly wrong – he cited Hillsborough as an example – customers will vote with their feet.

The Press Complaints’ Commission, claimed Kelvin, has improved levels of accuracy, but insisted that the press is now “a lot less interesting as a result. You can blame Guy Black for the fact that the press is bloody boring these days”.

He was a tough act to follow. Ian Mayes, Readers’ Editor of the Guardian, had an extremely different style, but a nonetheless interesting contribution to the debate. He cited polling evidence which suggests that his daily corrections and weekly column have enhanced readers’ confidence in the accuracy of the paper. He also claimed that most readers who complain don’t want to sue and would prefer a rapid recognition of their complaint. Forty thousand readers have been in touch with his office and he argues that it has reduced the caseload of the legal department by 30-50%.

Carol Sarler of the Express dismissed the premise of the debate. Over their breakfast tables and in pubs people are not discussing journalists’ ethics but the topics they are discussing – sport, soaps, celebrity gossip etc – are informed by newspaper coverage: “we have the best press in the world, and the most informed general public”.

Representing PR professionals on the panel Simon Walker of Reuters (and formerly of Buckingham Palace) expressed the view that the modern British press is broadly ethical but that there are still problems including dumbing down and the trivialisation of serious – especially business – news. The media will still use made up quotes and, worse, blind pejorative quotes that cannot possibly be checked.

Guy Black of the PCC began by admitting he was from Essex, but was able to demonstrate that he was not wearing white socks. He reiterated Kelvin MacKenzie’s point that standards had improved since the PCC was set up.

Stephen Whittle of the BBC asserted that people want entertainment from both broadcasters and newspapers, but look to broadcasters as a reliable source of information.

Despite an eminent chairman, seven distinguished panellists and both learned and sometimes angry contributions from the floor the debate reached no clear conclusion, and I am still left wondering what proportion of journalists really do take ethics seriously.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 14 May 2003

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