Nothing black and white about journalistic ethics

This week there’ve been two moments where journalistic ethics have been part of a big Australian story. In both cases, we’re talking about shades of grey rather than black and white or right and wrong, but overall, I think they come out okay.  

First came Tuesday’s attack on The Australian’s reporting on the alleged terrorist plot.

Watching the press conference held by Victoria Police’s Simon Overland, the initial impression was that The Oz had done an extraordinarily reckless thing. It had, apparently gone to press with the story before planned raids and created a real risk that targets could be tipped off.

But then the shades of grey came in.

First, there’s the old journalistic saying (from Northcliffe, I think)  that news is something that somebody, somewhere does not want you to report – the rest is advertising. There’s an element of truth to that. If newspapers needed people’s permisssion to write anything then they’d be pretty empty, and the public uninformed.

And then, although the detail hasn’t emerged, it’s gradually become clearer that The Oz had done some kind of behind the scenes deal with the Federal Police, having known about the story for several days. It also left the story out of its early editions. It was not, to use the words of associate editor Cameron Stewart behaving like a cowboy paper.

(As an aside, I know that a particular TV programme maker has been working for months on a super secret squirrel documentary which gives them access to the AFP. I wonder if the cameras captured any of thos negotiations. If so, a little more on that may yet come out.)

Certainly, the attack on The Oz  is already looking more like an issue of Victorian-versus-AFP police internal politics being at least one of the factors.

And this is the argument where perhaps my morals have been sullied by being a journalist. But let me make it anyway. Although social good can be a beneficial side effect, newspapers are not of themselves social institutions. Their purpose is to gather news and share it. Only in the most extreme circumstances would they or should they not do so. If a paper pulls its punches every time there is a risk, it stops having a purpose.

So the job of an editor is to balance the risk – The Oz did it right. There certainly seems no evidence that harm was done as a result. And sometimes the editor gets it wrong (remember the misjudgement of Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph in running with the so-called Pauline Hanson photos?)

But that’s what editors have to do. Those who play it safe too often lose their readers, because they’re failing to serve them just as much as if they took a reckless risk.

Like I say, it’s shades of grey.

Then comes the other big journalistic dilemma of the week – protection of sources.

On Wednesday, Steve Lewis of the Daily Telegraph gave up Godwin Grech as his source on the utegate affair. He wrote:

“Since The Daily Telegraph revealed the first details of the affair, I have been silent about my primary source. I believe there is now a public interest in disclosing the contact I had with Mr Grech, given he now admits to having lied to me. While journalists have a professional obligation to protect their sources, Mr Grech can no longer be afforded such protection.”

Again that is, at first glance, a clear breach of the journalists’ union the MEAA code of ethics which argues that sources should be protected “in all circumstances”.

There was a good discussion of this topic on The ABC’s Media Watch at the end of June, examining journalists’ obligations when their source deliberately miselads them.

And the code with journalists should be a straightforward one. If you tell them something confidentially, they should never reveal you as the source, no matter what. But then come the shades of grey. How about if you’re deliberately lying? It’s not like going to confession – journalists are not, you’ll be amazed to hear, priests.

On this one, my own view is Lewis got it wrong. Not because of ethics, but for practical reasons. Having publically given up a source, even for sound reasons, he’ll find it harder to be trusted next time.

But again, that’s not black and white, and not necesarrily an issue of journalistic ethics.

Everyt day there are examples of journos doing sleazy, unethical things. But this week, in the big issues, journalists and newspapers did their job. Even if that means dealing in shades of grey.

Tim Burrowes


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