media ethics

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And it gets worse

I’m planning on a trivial blog next week. I hope.  But not this week. This week I am hopping mad and sometimes just writing about it helps.

Here’s my scenario for you. You need to buy a car. The ticket price is £1,000, but you are a good haggler (I’m not) and you get the price down to £900. You go home and tell your family. What do you say the car cost? £1,000 or £900? You might say, I did really well, it would have cost £1,000, but I got it for £900. But it didn’t cost you £1,000, so why would you say it did? This is not difficult. It is a matter of facts.

Last week, I wrote about Leni Riefenstahl and how she used her immense talent to promote the evils of Nazism and the persona of Hitler. I’m escalating it this week. And, like last week, this is not about politics, this is about truth versus lies. And yes, I’m going to be as black and white as that.

So, Joseph Goebbels. Minister for Propaganda and an absolute zealot when it came to Hitler and National Socialism. And a man of many contradictions. He had no hesitation in telling the German people what he wanted to be true, even when he knew it was false, if it served his aims. And from him we have the playbook of how to lie on a grand scale:

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

In the current excuse for a debate about Britain’s future membership of the European Union, the Vote Leave campaign has been hammering home one figure and associated concept time and time again. This is how they word it in their campaign literature:

“The EU costs us over £350 million a week.

“We are still sending £350 million a week to the EU.

“We will keep sending at least £350 million a week abroad.

“Permanent handing over of £350 million a week to Brussels.”

Got that? Four times in one document (five, if you count the time they tell us we would stop paying that much if we left the EU).

It is a lie, pure and simple. A lie that follows the Goebbels playbook of making sure it’s big and keeping repeating it, even when you have been told (as if you didn’t already know) that it’s not true. Remember the car? We are being told, again and again, that the car cost £1,000. It didn’t. It cost £900. And it’s not even that the car cost £1,000 with some cash back later on. It only ever cost £900 (and, in the case of the EU, you then got a large proportion of that £900 back in grants and other money to spend on your home or garden, but at some point the analogy breaks down).

Does it matter? Morally, I think unequivocally yes, it matters. We are asked to place a degree of trust in politicians. Our system of democracy (stop laughing in the back) grants them the authority to make significant decisions on our behalf. And yet some of them, including cabinet ministers and wannabe next prime ministers, wilfully lie to us when it serves their purposes. In my opinion, lying to the electorate does nothing to serve democracy, nothing to further a meaningful debate, and it will have a lasting impact of reducing further what trust we do still have in politicians. I will be honest, I am keeping a mental list of the politicians who continue knowingly to peddle this lie. I will never be able to trust any of them in the future, knowing that they have no scruples about lying to me about something as straightforward as this – and defending the lie when challenged.

I’m not alone in being more than a little troubled by the promulgation of non-facts in this campaign. Andrew Tyrie, Chairman of the Parliamentary Treasury Committee, summarised his committee’s report by saying

Both sides in the referendum campaign have traded in outrageous claims and unsubstantiated assertions, masquerading as “facts”.

And on the £350m figure, the committee was incredibly clear:

Brexit will not result in a £350m per week fiscal windfall to the Exchequer as a consequence of ending the UK’s contributions to the EU budget. Despite having been presented with the evidence contradicting this claim, Vote Leave has subsequently placed the £350m figure on its campaign bus, and on much of its recent campaign literature. The public should discount this claim. Vote Leave’s persistence with it is deeply problematic. It sits very awkwardly with its promises to the Electoral Commission to work in a spirit that reflects its “very significant responsibility” and the “gravity of the choice facing the British people”.

What a very British way of saying “They are lying to you”. Now, Vote Leave are not alone in talking factual nonsense in this referendum campaign. Theirs is just, in my opinion, the best (that should probably be “worst”) example of a lie on such a scale which is being told in what we like to think is a more enlightened age than 1930s and 40s Germany was. But people haven’t changed. Some still lie to us, abusing their position for their personal aims and ideology, and some of us will always believe it, particularly when it plays to our existing views. Confirmation bias, anyone?

While I’m on my soapbox, here’s another parallel with German history that worries me, this time from my home patch of media ethics. When politicians are up to no good, we have the media to hold them to account, to challenge them, to ask the questions we cannot individually. Jump forward a few years from the 1940s to East Germany. The media are under effective state control, the flagship newspaper Neues Deutschland is required reading (or at least subscription) for Party members. And it was unashamed in calling itself “Organ of the Socialist Unity Party” (the ruling party – and at this point, let me just say that the Party and country were not socialist, they were parts of a Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship that was socialist in name only). I will give them this – they were honest about their allegiances. I think the Daily Telegraph should be equally honest and include in its masthead “Organ of the Vote Leave campaign” given the incredibly biased coverage of the campaign over recent weeks. I rather hope that, one day, someone will do what I did with East German journalists and ask some of the Telegraph journalists some difficult questions about their concept of media ethics and how their professed values could be considered consistent with what they wrote – and did not write. I would buy that book.

Us and them

There is something in our evolutionary history that we seem not be able to shake off when we should. We all too easily become tribal and split ourselves into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

We can define ourselves by the groups we belong to, formally or informally. Work (including department versus department, team versus team), school, church, hobbies. All can help us form part of our sense of identity, but the danger is that we then regard those not in that group as ‘the others’. As if any of us defined ourselves by what we are not.

History is rife with examples of extreme consequences of putting people into the category of the ‘others’, different from us in some way.

The Nazis were an obvious example of this. Anyone who did not conform to their concept of what an acceptable human being should look like (both behaviourally and physically) was consigned to be one of the ‘others’, with the terrible consequences that followed.

And then there are the refugees. Another case of them being, in some people’s eyes, no more than the ‘others.’


How the ‘others’ live? Discuss…

Politicians are perhaps another example of people we can easily consider different from ‘us’. And that makes it much easier to consider them as fair game. I think it’s perhaps just another form of us wanting to be judged by our intentions rather than our acts, but judging others by their acts rather than their intentions.

And it’s perhaps in that context that I’m now seeing the storm in a teacup that was the Rifkind/Straw case. Someone decided that politicians were legitimate targets for a sting operation. There was, as far as I can see, no suggestion that the twelve politicians who were selected for this operation had previously done anything wrong which merited exposure. It looks much more like a fishing expedition to see what might come out of it. And what did come out of it? That they were considering how to earn a living after they had left parliament. That they were able to command fees which are out of the reach of almost anyone else. Certainly of anyone we might actually know – ‘us’. That they had properly disclosed their existing outside interests, which are allowed under parliamentary rules. And that they – like, I would suggest, every single one of us – said some things in a conversation which were ambiguous, capable of misinterpretation, or downright factually incorrect. Like Rifkind saying he didn’t earn a salary. He now says it was a silly thing to have said and that of course he was being paid a salary as an MP. But none of ‘us’ has every said something which stretched the truth a bit (or a lot), which sought to make us seem in some way better than we are. We just haven’t been recorded doing it. Unless you count the content of some CVs.

Was it a legitimate investigation for the media organisation in question to have run? I think it probably depends on your view of how to judge this. If it had revealed serious wrongdoing, I think we would collectively have concluded that the ends justified the means. And, implicitly, that lying and pretending to be someone else in order to get to a truth which would otherwise remain hidden, is justifiable in some cases. Which is not to say that it was right in principle, without knowing the outcome. And some might say that behaving truthfully trumps the question of the outcome which might result. It’s an age old debate.

Either way it is a far cry from the kind of work others have done. In my case, the man I know best in the area of undercover journalism is a German (surprise, surprise), Günter Wallraff. He made his living for decades by taking on the persona of a member of a societal group which we can so easily think of as the ‘others’. An alcoholic, a homeless person and as a Turkish Gastarbeiter. His book on the latter, Ganz Unten (Lowest of the Low) is one I will never forget. He experienced and recorded what it was like to be a foreign worker in (what was then) West Germany. It was not pleasant, and perhaps for that reason it has stayed in my mind every since. He was not without his critics, including those who considered his methods to be inappropriate (for which read unethical). The main German tabloid, Bild, later accused him of having been one of the East German Stasi’s unofficial collaborators. A court agreed with him that there was no proof that this had ever been true. Back to media ethics again. Ironically, Wallraff had also in the past worked (again, undercover) for four months as an editor at that same newspaper and had exposed some of the practices there. It was also the only newspaper that refused to allow me access to any of its journalists to explore their concept of media ethics with them. They were ‘too busy.’ Clearly more so than those at all the other newspapers. It said a lot.

Survey after survey shows us that we consistently believe ourselves to be better than the average in almost any area (I say almost because there might be an exception rather than because I know of any).

On the basis of the evidence I have of my own actions (even if not recorded for public scrutiny) I don’t think I could claim to be better than anyone else in not getting all tribal and letting my T-100,000 years man take over. But I am pretty sure the world would be a better place if we could move on from that place. We aren’t living in caves any more.




There is another way of saying this that you are much more likely to remember in years to come, because someone else said it better than I can. Martin Niemöller was a German minister who vocally opposed the National Socialists and spent (and survived) seven years in concentration camps. He wrote this poem. It says it all. In someone’s eyes, we are all the ‘others.’

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Right and wrong – black and white?

The thing about black and white photography is that it isn’t really. Black and white, I mean. It’s shades of … no, I’m not going to finish that thought given the film (apparently) currently showing in cinemas. Black and white are just the ends of that spectrum, there is an infinite range of grey in between. Thanks to two very large books that recently arrived, I’ve been poring over some of the best photos from the last century, or at least some of the best black and white ones, trying to understand better what works in a picture and why. And I’ve also been out and about with my camera, experimenting a lot. I have no idea if any of the pictures are even worth looking at, never mind printing. But I’m hopeful that this coming weekend I will be able to develop and scan them and then we will know. For now, there are a couple of rolls of film lying in the fridge waiting for me to get to them. And I am very grateful for a wife who grew up with film in the fridge and who finds this entirely normal. Thank goodness for her journalist parents.

We often talk about ethical issues in black and white terms as well. Maybe it’s easier to take a firm position than recognise the nuances of the arguments for and against any proposition. I know that I have opinions on enough subjects where I am nowhere near as informed as I should be to have such  strong view, but there we are. And there are some questions where we don’t need to know every fact to have a sense of what we think a reasonable (if not ‘right’) point of view is. However… when it comes to politics, I was given something of a surprise when I looked at and selected which policies my views were closer to – without knowing which party they came from – and am now having to re-examine some assumptions I had previously made. It’s an excellent exercise to go through.

Despite the internet providing us with a range of opinions more than wide enough, we do still rely on the professionals working across the media sectors both to report and comment on current issues.

And that brings me on to the current debacle with the Telegraph and the reporting of the HSBC offshore tax disclosures. A quick recap – an allegation that the Telegraph didn’t report much of the HSBC story because of the amount of advertising the paper received from the bank, one of the paper’s senior reporters resigns and writes about his reasons in some detail, then we find out that apparently the newspaper’s owners received a loan from HSBC. And a general sense that all is not right in the world of editorial independence. Black and white, right? But this was, of course, the same newspaper that broke the story of the MPs and their expenses, and just today came the ‘revelation’ of two prominent MPs (for balance, one each from both the two main political parties) and the way in which they might be using their name, access or reputation to earn some extra money.

But back to the HSBC reporting issue.

Here are the front pages of the online newspapers of the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Telegraph on the day HSBC offices were raided in connection with alleged tax evasion:

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Clear cut, then. Only the Telegraph didn’t have the HSBC cover on its front page. Guilty as charged. Neither did the Independent. I just chose to omit that, because it wouldn’t have fit with the picture I was trying to paint. So sometimes it depends on what facts you include and which you exclude. Was there any agenda in my selection? No, they were just the three papers I tend to check. I only looked at the Independent to see if I could say that all the quality dailies except the Telegraph covered the story with the same degree of prominence.

None of this is new, the conflict between editorial independence and the commercial necessities of running a newspaper as a (profitable) business. I haven’t spoken with any of the journalists at the Telegraph and know no more about what really is going on at the top of that organisation than I read about elsewhere. But I did speak with journalists in Germany who went through a similar experience.

During the Soviet era, politics drove reporting of events in East Germany. Some areas were more overtly steered than others, but nowhere was immune. When the Berlin wall fell, the old system of media direction collapsed, the previous newspaper editors either resigned or were effectively fired by the rest of the staff. It was going to be a new beginning. And for a year or so, that was a reality. Thanks to continuing subsidies and without political interference, journalists could write about what they wanted, how they wanted to. And they did.

And then reality set in. Western publishers came along and the parameters of the reporting changed. Where there had previously been politically-driven dictats, now there were commercially-driven ones. Here’s what a few of them had to say about their experiences (you can, of course, read the whole story with all its nuances in my book – you can even skip the Marxist-Leninist theory and go straight to the fun parts where I shut up and let the journalists speak):

For those of us in the business affairs team the conflict is conducted between advertising customers and editorial work and there are conflicts there for me when advertising customers call the Berliner Zeitung saying the reporting of the opening of some shop was too limited and they buy so much advertising from this paper. Then the publisher impresses upon us that some reporter from the business affairs team has to go back there again and write about it again so that the advertising customer is satisfied, and I think that’s totally wrong – that so much influence is exerted by advertising customers – I think it’s increased as the number of advertising customers has reduced, business is bad, then you do something to counteract that, I think that’s somehow a betrayal of the reader.

And that is for me the biggest conflict of all, that in my opinion the profit that is made from this newspaper comes higher – obviously, because in this system it must come higher – than any ethics of journalism.

In the case of small advertisers you can bat it off easily and refuse, but when it’s a large, important advertiser who is close to the heart of our advertising department or the publisher, you don’t have much chance, you have to do it even if it tastes bitter to you, but we have got used to that.

There are limitations, so you can’t write a critical article about bad, overpriced goods in a supplement about homes and building if the same companies have adverts in the supplements. The freedom of the press ends with money, it used to be that it ended with political influencing, today it ends with economic goals.

So I wasn’t at all surprised to read that something similar has allegedly been happening at the Telegraph. For me, the more surprising thing was that we, as a population, didn’t think it was to some degree or other. What I haven’t seen (maybe I just missed it) is any suggestion for how to avoid this. We live in a world where we expect to get a lot for free, even our news. But we also want it to be produced by experienced professionals, with high standards of reporting and ethics, independent of external influences. If we aren’t willing to pay for that, how do we expect the newspapers to be able to continue to pay its journalists and other staff, if not through advertising? And if that becomes a vital source of income to allow the newspaper to continue to exist and report the cash-for-access, Snowden, MPs expenses type of stories, is it any wonder that the people paying for the advertising don’t expect to be lambasted in the same publication? I’m not saying it’s right or that I like it. But I don’t know what the solution is.

Did I mention that these kinds of questions are covered in my book? Now – was I influenced to write about this topic this week in the hope that someone might buy my book or because I thought it was important to write about it?

None of this is black and white.

Lessons from the East?

Harlan Coben is so prolific a writer that you can get collections of his books now. I received about ten of his books a few Christmases ago and read most of them over the following few weeks before deciding to take a break. And then I was on the lookout for a new audiobook and the library had one of his books on CD. I’ve discovered that I can get close to an hour’s free reading time in the car to and from work every day, which starts to add up after a while, and is definitely an improvement on listening to the same news over and over again.

IMG_0391Let’s start with the story. A journalist is on the hunt for no-gooders and catches one in the act by pretending to be a fictitious girl online. Cue big story, picked up by all the other media, what a terrible thing the villain has done. And of course his life as he knew it is over, the media have judged and the public have condemned. But wait, maybe (there has to be a twist) the story wasn’t quite the one we thought it was and there was something else going on, something which put the journalist into a different light. And raising some ethical questions about the journalist’s own actions which aren’t easy to answer.

That description could be applied to Coben’s book Caught. But it also fits the case of a male journalist who pretended to be a 20-something female and contacted a number of MPs. One of whom sent some pictures of himself to ‘her’ which he now regrets doing. But he’s already resigned, been condemned by the public. But just a second. We will all have our own views on whether what the MP did was morally right, wrong or neutral. It wasn’t illegal though. And aside from the impact on his own family, which I think is a matter for them alone, does it have any bearing on his ability to serve as a MP? John F Kennedy had enough affairs, Clinton survived and has now been rehabilitated. Even John Major had an affair and is now regarded as an elder statesman. The list could go on, and that’s just the one theme (and of course there are others where the outcome was less positive). As far as I can see, this particular MP hadn’t spoken out against anything he himself was doing. And let’s ask one more question – of ourselves. A middle aged man, an attractive younger woman showing interest (and photos), the relative anonymity of the internet (I’ll cover Snowden and co another time). If we knew, or believed with a high degree of probability, that nobody would ever find out, would we all say no? A number of other MPs did. This one didn’t. Sounds like the population at large then, some people, maybe even most people, would say no and metaphorically walk away, some would give into the temptation. I think this is a question we can ask ourselves in so many cases. It is so easy to judge other people for what they have done. ‘We would have done it differently’ we say. Except that we as a whole haven’t got a great track record on that one. We know how ‘we’ behaved during the Third Reich – but ‘we’ wouldn’t have been like that, ‘we’ would have – what? Resisted when we knew we would be killed, and most likely our family with us. No, ‘we’ wouldn’t have, though some would have, as some in fact did.

We can easily forget that ‘to err is human’. If anyone has never done anything which they wouldn’t want to have on the front page of a newspaper, please let me know.

So, how about those ethics then?

Is it acceptable to pretend to be someone else not just to gain their trust but to encourage them to do something where your sole intention is to make it public? And to do so to a series of people where there is no evidence of previous similar ‘wrongdoing’? If it looks like fish, smells like fish and swims like a fish, you’ve been on a fishing trip.

Public interest defence? Where’s the public interest? Apart from the public’s prurient interest that is.

I had the privilege many years ago to speak with a number of journalists who had worked in East Germany and then in the reunited Germany. Two of the questions I asked them all were about working undercover and, separately, whether they found it acceptable to pretend to have a particular opinion in order to gain their trust (note the condition, it wasn’t to expose them in any way).

You can read much more about how they approached these questions in my book, but here are some of the things they said:

‘I think I would come up against my conscience at some point and say, my God, you’re lying to all these people.’

‘I am lying to the people. And that is exactly what I don’t want them to do to me.’

And finally, one journalist considered the deliberateness with which he would be engaging in this kind of activity:

‘If it is deliberate, conscious and applied with intent, in order to lead the other person astray and to break down his reserve, in my opinion that isn’t OK.’

The journalists in question had all worked in a country where there were very real limits placed on what they could write. They knew what it was to have the freedom to exercise their professional judgement because they had lacked that freedom for so many years previously.

In the UK, the media have had immense freedoms, rightly jealously protected, and in the main those freedoms have, I think, been used responsibly. We do love our irony as well though. The paper which had the original story on the MP (from a freelance journalist, so one could question the ethics of both the journalist – who was paid for the story – and the editor who paid for the story) had just admitted liability for some of its journalists having in the past hacked the phones of a range of celebrities. If it looks like a lack of ethics, reads like a lack of ethics…

It really could be from a Harlen Coben novel. And I know who I think the real baddies are in the true life story.