Sunday, July 17, 2011

News...morally bankrupt or giving us what we want?

How quickly, fueled by genuinee public outrage, and years of restrained bile, media can turn.

In this case, on itself.

It raises a bigger question than the obvious one of media ethics.

There's a very good reason for the media furore. And it's not phone tapping.

News of the World, and possibly other News Limited titles, intervening in the private lives of grieving people was simply the thread that unravelled the whole ball of yarn...and led to this particular tangle.

The British public are rightly outraged at the notion of media, or anyone, inserting themselves into the investigation of a child's death - and them profiting from such morally bankrupt activity.

But really haven't the media just been giving us what we, the avaricious public, been consuming on demand and gravitating towards by reading ever more salacious details of other people's lives? I'm thinking maybe the whole ball of yarn here has as much to do with media consumers as media malpractice.

There is no justification in my mind for the actions of media party to this behaviour.

But where's the line? And what part do we, the public, play?

I'm speaking here as a media consumer, not as a PR person. As a PR person I tend to think decent journalists have a hard time of it as they set out to do a very worthy job. As a PR person I also strongly believe both media and PRs should work in ethics-driven cultures, and be under scrutiny - nothing beats sunlight to help encourage good behaviour.

Possibly since journalism (and PR) began we've all been reading, hearing and watching and probably will continue to, news that's delivered via foul means as well as fair.

It's just that rarely do we lift the bonnet to see how the engine runs. Because all we care about is whether or not the car gets us from point A to point B in the style we want to travel.

High brow economics commentary? Page three girls? Perhaps a dodgy used car sales person running from the cameras? Or perhaps your taste runs more to celebrity weight loss/infidelity/surgery stories. Or to civilian deaths in another country's conflict.

We've all become, to some extent, voyeurs entertained or informed at some cost to others - whether that cost is their dignity, their safety or simply their right to suffer unseen.

I have no moral ground to stand on here. I read newspapers, listen to radio, read online news and occasionally read 'one of those' magazines while waiting for something better to happen or avoiding my email.

That makes me too complicit in the decline of media standards. Some media would argue that my profession does also...but that's a debate for another day.

If one lasting and fundamental good could come from this 'you wouldn't read about it' saga, it may simply be this: that media are more accountable.

For the most part the many journalists I've worked with, sometimes at cross purposes to, and alongside, are exceptional people.

For often average incomes they work, day after day, to report news that people should know. That's news that is in the public interest. It's news that holds people, governments and businesses accountable. And it's news that sometimes changes the world.

For that ridiculously important task many get little more than a byline or story credit. Very often the money and professional opportunity doesn't adequately cover the grief that goes withnthe job. There is however, for those journalists, the great satisfaction of knowing they really did make a difference.

It's just a shame that media organisations, guided by the scandal and sauce-loving public, have increasingly rewarded another kind of journalist and photographer - and apparently private eye.

That's the kind who really does only care about money and ego.

But they will, sadly, continue to be rewarded by the average reader. Because actually, until now, we really didn't want to think too hard about where our 'news' was coming from or how it was sourced.

In my private nirvana, news consumers and those who serve them, would actually want to know about the kind of ethics and behaviour that generated the headlines.

It's happened with clothing, chocolate and coffee. Maybe one day we'll read news that comes with a "free trade" or "ethical" label. If no-ones rights were infringed, it's okay to read. If so, straight to the bin.

Yes, that's fantasy land. Because media, and many others do believe the means justifies the ends.

But should we all be a bit more careful about that kind of thinking?

Sometimes nothing justifies the ends. Sometimes the means in itself is so wrong that it represents the slippery slide to an ethical wilderness. Once lost, we might never emerge to see the greater good, or innthis case, the public interest.