Ethics in the Media: What is broken? How can it be fixed?

A journalist interviews a woman in Africa.

Full text of a speech given by Peter Horrocks, Director, Global News, BBC and Chair of BBC Media Action at Highway Africa conference, August 2013.

"I'd like to tell you about a recent debate touching on the ethics of journalism in Africa. Last Thursday in Nairobi I took part in a BBC Africa debate about the role of international media in Africa. The most interesting discussion was within the community of Kenyan journalists. One journalist argued that in the run-up to this year's elections local media had held back from properly examining the records of candidates and parties. Most present agreed there had been insufficient examination, but argued that was preferable to the inflammatory role played by partisan media in the previous elections.

Then other local journalists referred to the sensationalising role played by some international media in exaggerating the threat of political violence. It was encouraging to hear an open and self-aware discussion about the ethics of coverage of a major African story. But it struck me that the ethical framework was not one where the interests of truthful reporting on behalf of the subject and the audience came first. Instead, the unethical mistakes of the media organisations stemmed from putting the concerns of owners or interests first, ahead of the audience. In short, it was primarily about owner interest, rather than public interest.

In 2007/8 the interests of some in Kenyan politics were served by inflaming public feeling. This year some political interests were served by ensuring that there was insufficient enquiry into past political misbehaviour. And the interests of some commercial international media may be served by over-dramatising and caricaturing Africa. The ethical approach to covering Kenyan politics properly is not to focus on the interests of owners, or the powerful, but to be as accurate as possible and report what you discover responsibly. That ability to report ethically has an essential characteristic - journalistic independence. I will examine the need for independence to support ethical journalism and describe crucial international initiatives to enshrine global access to independent information.

Today I wish to speak in defence of journalism, and of the critical role of the media on this continent - a role I believe can be an enormously positive one, but which now needs to be fought for. I believe that role is under threat from multiple pressures from outside of journalism, and under threat from within the profession. I also want to talk about how the BBC is committed to play its part in not only upholding the best traditions of journalism, but in supporting the many remarkable individuals and organisations in Africa who are practising great journalism under immensely difficult circumstances.

My subject is the ethics of media. It may seem an odd time for a British journalist to mount a defence of media ethics when in my own country they have been subject to so much criticism.

The phone hacking scandal in the UK sent shockwaves across the country when it was revealed that journalists intercepted voicemails of hundreds of politicians, celebrities and even a murdered school girl who had gone missing.

Titles owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp were at the heart of the investigations which led to lawsuits, criminal charges, arrests of journalists and executives and the closure of the News of the World Sunday paper.

The phone hacking scandal resulted in a widespread debate about the ethics in journalism and a compelling need for reform. Since then, there has been a public inquiry to examine the culture, practices and ethics of the press. The inquiry was specifically into the press.

Whether journalism should be regulated or self-regulated, I want to stress that ultimately it is ethical journalism that ensures scandals like phone-hacking are not repeated. Ethics in journalism should not differ in UK or Africa or Asia. A set of values that shape ethical journalism should be the same everywhere. If journalism matters it is because these values are integral to it, no less in UK than in Africa. And the cornerstone of those values is putting the public interest first. That is not the same as commercial interest nor state interest.

Journalists should be able to work without any external interference or pressure and only have the public’s interest at heart. As journalists we are required to put aside our own opinions and personal interests and pursue the truth on behalf of our audiences. However, of course this doesn't always happen.

In certain countries, it has become the accepted habit that journalists are given informal incentives in order to publish stories or in some instances not to publish stories. You’re aware that this practice is prevalent, although of course not universal, in Africa and is often known as "brown-envelope journalism". In Tanzania and other countries reporters receive what is called a "sitting fee" for attending the so-called "right" news conferences. In China, it has been known as "red envelope journalism", The practice of "news for sale" is so widespread that many publications and broadcasters actually print rate cards.

Some argue that the practice is understandable, given that media organisations pay very poorly, but it is a practice that undermines journalistic independence.

These shortcomings are now rightly being exposed, including by audiences who use social media to demand that media organisations put their houses in order.

But the money, effort and threats expended on suborning journalists might not be there if media were not generally such a powerful defender of the public interest.

That is why in many parts of the world we have seen serious and disturbing attempts to impede or prevent reporting by free and independent media. Intimidation and threats of physical violence have been rising. More than 600 journalists have been killed in the past ten years. In many cases, they were not reporting from conflict zones, but on local stories in their home towns, revealing corruption and illegal activities. The increasing international policy focus, including in a recent UN Security Council debate, on the impunity enjoyed in much of the world by those who attack journalists is a development much to be welcomed. I call on all responsible media organisations here to support these efforts to combat impunity.

It is not just the political and commercial interests of local media owners who create the environment that makes it hard for ethical journalism to flourish. There is also a danger that international players who are investing hugely in global broadcast operations, can also create distorted unethical journalism. Many of these new entrants are creating attractively produced news and they are investing in local operations, which is to be welcomed. However many of them have missions tied to foreign policy requirements of their funding governments. Their journalism may therefore be biased and questionable.

So, how can we identify responsible and ethical journalism, and what can we all do to support such journalism?

On identifying best practice, I suggest one good test of the independence of any media house is to assess how it covers the affairs of its own organisation or country. A second test is how any media house handles its own mistakes. Let me give you some very recent examples, close to home, from my own organisation the BBC.

I'm sure many of you will have heard of the defeat this week by the British parliament of the UK government's intentions to take military action against Syria. Here is what one major news organisation said of the impact on Prime Minister David Cameron. It was "humiliating and wounding....The prime minister has lost control of his own foreign and defence policy and as a result he will cut a diminished figure on the international stage."

Maybe it sounds to you like this was commentary from Russia Today or Iran's Press TV. In fact it was the BBC's own Political editor, whose views the BBC has published to hundreds of millions around the world. Despite being funded by Britain, the BBC's independence is enshrined and we are properly free to report on the UK government as we call it. Can you possibly imagine a state interest broadcaster like China's CCTV dealing with an embarrassment to the Chinese government in the same way. Or would many of the state or commercial media houses across Africa report on their owners' problems similarly?

The second test is how you handle things when you make mistakes. As I left Kenya yesterday morning the BBC was reporting that Nelson Mandela had left hospital. By the time I reached Port Elizabeth that news had proved wrong but the BBC immediately carried a prominent correction. And whenever BBC audience members think the BBC has made a mistake there are well advertised corrections and complaints mechanisms and the ability to appeal decisions to independent trustees. Ask yourself if news organisations you know or work for have such mechanisms?

And alongside these polices and systems the explosion in social media is contributing to keeping the BBC honest. When audience members have the power to answer back we need to listen and respond. If we expect to hold others accountable we need to be fully accountable ourselves.

So how can organisations like the BBC help tackle some of the ethical shortcomings in journalism? Partly it is about making our policies and practices widely available. If you want to use the BBC's editorial policy guidelines, our ethical bible, they are available on the BBC website. The BBC also produces free training material. You can also find that online at the BBC College of journalism site. We don't say ours is the only way, but if you want you can take what you want from the BBC.

And how can international media help in Africa? It is partly about investment. The BBC has in the last year launched new TV programmes about Africa on BBC World News and on Swahili TV. And today we are announcing the creation of an Africa business unit, creating stories about Africa's business transformation in all parts of the continent.

But we are conscious that that investment needs to be of benefit to the wider media sector. That is why in Nairobi we recently signed an internship programme with the journalism faculty at the Multimedia University. The BBC has also arranged training attachments for journalists from a number of partner radio and TV stations across the continent. We now intend to build further on that. In the year to come we will be agreeing a number of ambitious content-sharing partnerships with media houses both large and small in Africa. This plan, in the spirit of internet openness, we are calling the BBC's API - Africa Partnership Initiative. We hope our partners will benefit from exposure to high BBC ethical standards and the ability to tell stories of Africa to the world. And the BBC's audiences will benefit from the broader range of content and viewpoints that media organisations who commit to high standards can provide for the BBC's 96m size audience here. BBC Africa is open to content partnership proposals.

The other way we support ethical standards in African media is through BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity which has helped support this conference. BBC Media Action has been working with African journalists, broadcasters and government and non-government organisations to help the development of African media. Our projects in Africa are supporting not only large scale broadcast debates but also community media and journalists working in some of the most remote and difficult places on the continent. Working with African journalists has helped the BBC in telling the story of Africa.

In Kenya the debate programme Sema Kenya (Kenya Speaks), which is produced by BBC Media Action in partnership with the BBC Swahili Service, is aimed at providing ordinary, unknown people in sometimes very remote places. It gives them the chance to air their views, debate with each other and most importantly, to directly question leaders.

In Tanzania and Sierra Leone, BBC Media Action collaborated with local radio partners to produce programmes with a local identity, focusing on local issues and local accountability.

This direct practical and financial support is essential because a key element of the ethical crisis in journalism is actually the economic crisis of journalism. Indeed one of the threads that links the apparently different scandals of the UK phone hacking and "brown envelope journalism" is the economic pressure almost all journalistic organisations are under. In the UK that pressure pushed papers to search for more sensational stories to hold on to falling circulations. Broad economic pressure on developing world journalism can have similar pernicious effects and create the background for corruption.

So what is the international community doing to help with all these pressures and help media to be more independent and ethical? There is at least one encouraging sign. Earlier this year the UN's so called High Level Panel, tasked with updating the Millennium Development Goals, made a number of recommendations. Among the twelve new goals they proposed is one on good governance which aims to: "Ensure people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information."

This is a highly significant addition to the international development programme, based on a large body of academic literature which shows conclusive links between the strength of independent media, their ability to promote good governance and positive outcomes in terms of human development. My colleague from BBC Media Action, James Deane, is here and will be on a panel tomorrow where if you want to know more about this crucial media development area, James can assist you.

I urge all delegates to draw the attention of policy makers to the UN clarion call on the importance of access to independent media. Along with the significance of this statement in principle I believe that it will be important for the aim to be backed up with resources to ensure the right training and policy frameworks are in place so that the fine words are delivered into action.

I believe there will also be a need for some targeted investment in high quality public media, along with a drive for improved standards in commercial media. It is no accident that many of the countries with the highest standards of range and quality in their media are countries with strong publicly supported media.

In describing the ethical challenges journalism faces I have focussed on institutional and policy problems and solutions. But there is a final element, and this will be of most direct concern to the many young journalists and student journalists who I'm delighted to see here today. Despite all the problems I've mentioned, of course not all journalists are corrupt or slaves to their owners' demands. Many, if not most, are true and brave. The stand individual journalists can take is essential - to refuse to take bribes, to ask tough questions of the powerful, to challenge editors to be more ambitious and to acknowledge mistakes when made. So much of that is in the hands of individuals. So, with a little help from policy makers and some collaboration among public-spirited media organisations, we can make journalism more ethical. Let's all spend this conference debating how to do that and ensure we can make that ethical change for good."

Peter Horrock's blog about ethics of journalism and the API 

I wish to speak in defence of journalism, and of the critical role of the media in Africa

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