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Ethics and Journalism - symposium hosted by DCU School of Communications

Prof Colm Kenny with Katie Moore
Prof Colum Kenny with Katie Hannon

DCU's School of Communications today hosted a symposium on the topic of 'Ethics and Journalism' which was attended by academics as well as print and broadcast journalists. Professor Colum Kenny, who organised the symposium, introduced the speakers who included Simon Bourke, Katie Hannon, Ray Senior and Paul Drury.

Simon Bourke, the author of 'Taking the free-speech temperature: Irish libel law and newspaper journalism', has just
completed a research survey on 'Ethical trends in Irish journalism, 1973 to 2008'. The findings of his research showed the following:

- Historically, a large majority of complaints of ‘unethical journalism’ in all forums had no identifiable ethical basis. The largest portion related to perceived imbalance or bias, generally of a party-political nature. Another large percentage concerned allegations of inaccuracy, but without any evidence of malice or recklessness. The third large percentage of complaints concerned alleged lapses of taste and indecency, almost invariably of a sexual nature.

- While the global number of complaints in all forums has increased since 1973, and especially since roughly the turn of the century, the relative percentages of different categories of complaint have remained consistent.

- Of complaints with an arguably ethical basis, invasion of privacy (54%) and intrusion upon grief (28%) and conflict of interest (7%) formed the bulk.

- Of complaints to the formal structures (the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Press Council/Press Ombudsman) 17 of 57 (30%) were upheld or partially upheld.

- The evidence suggests that the emphasis on privacy issues in the public discourse on journalistic ethics is being led by public figures and, particularly, by politicians. Two-thirds of invasion of privacy complaints in all forums were from public figures. One-third came from private citizens, and only a fifth (21%) actually concerned private citizens.

- Just over 50% of complaints in Dail Eireann or Seanad Eireann of unethical journalism since 1973 related to invasion of privacy. Of the cases judged worthy of consideration by the Press Ombudsman/Press Council so far, 38% related to invasion of privacy and 80% of these came from just two complainants.

- Only about 2% of complaints to the BCC, roughly 6 per year, relate to privacy issues. This percentage has remained consistent over the years, despite changes in legislation and the widening of the BCC’s remit to include commercial television/radio and local radio

- The news organisations in respect of which most complaints were received were Independent News & Media (29% of all complaints), RTE (29%) and Associated News (11%). It may be borne in mind that RTE and other broadcasters have been subject to a formal complaints system longer than newspapers have, that INM is (like RTE) a very large media organisation and owns or part-owns six national titles and that Associated News owns or part-owns three titles and has been operating in Ireland since only 2002.

- The most complained of titles (all sources) were RTE One Television (15% of all complaints), the Sunday Independent, (14.5%) RTE Radio 1 (10%), Ireland on Sunday, Irish Mail on Sunday (9.5%) and the Evening Herald (8%).

- The organisations with the greatest number of complaints upheld by the formal structures were RTE (7), INM (3) and Associated News (2).

- Far fewer complaints are upheld by formal complaints structures than are made to them. It should not be assumed that the ratio of complaints is equivalent to that of complaints upheld. For example, while 14.5% of complaints in the period were against the Sunday Independent, none were upheld.

- Evidence of consensus between and among the public, legislators and journalists on the scope of journalistic ethics extends only to invasion of privacy, intrusion upon grief, malicious or reckless inaccuracy and, to a far lesser extent, conflict of interest. Issues such as proximity to sources; involvement in the news; reckless endangerment of interviewees/people captured on camera (particularly in foreign reportage); inducements, ‘freebies’ and junkets; or the dominance of the medical and dietetic discourse by commercial interests using questionable or tainted research, are rarely matters of complaint or public discussion.

- Nor is there any agreed moral basis for journalistic ethics in the public discourse. Both in terms of complaints and of defences, members of the public, legislators and journalists themselves variously rely on teleological, utilitarian, consequentialist and deontological argument to suit the case.

Biographical note: Simon Bourke MAJ is the author of 'Taking the free-speech temperature: Irish libel law and newspaper journalism' (published by DCU, 2004). He is currently completing at DCU an in-depth study of newspaper coverage of heritage in Ireland, supported by The Heritage Council.