Michael Williams

Why journalists need a conscience clause

June 25, 2012 The Independent

She had been a bright student with a good degree who had trained as a journalist, believing it was somehow an honourable career. Instead, in her first job on a newspaper she was told to dress up in a skimpy outfit and pose for a stunt in the paper simply because she had blonde hair.

Such stories from aspiring journalists at the hands of newsroom bullies have become wearyingly familiar in recent years. Hopefully abuses like this are now in the past as Lord Leveson has shone his spotlight deep into the nasty bits of the popular press.

Over the next couple of weeks [June 24-July 7] the first “Leveson generation” of young journalists are coming to maturity as they graduate from Britain’s journalism schools and are now being eagerly sought by the quality press, the BBC, the cream of digital media – and yes, the Daily Mail and the Sun, too.

Here are the new young crusaders who will be the Carl Bernsteins and Harold Evanses of the next generation. Contrary to today’s public perception that the average British journalist is somehow born as a foot-in-the-door merchant who would sell his sister for a news-in-brief at the bottom of a page in the Sun this coming generation of journalists is better qualified and more ethically minded than ever.

Unlike the days when chancers and bullshitters could be dragooned by sergeant-major news editors, or worse, when bullying and intimidation were institutionalised by Rupert Murdoch’s post-Wapping grip on the print industry, the new generation emerging now, post-Leveson, are having none of it.

What drives them is not whether they can match Piers Morgan’s salary, but old-fashioned virtues such as decency and obligation to the truth. The chatter now is all about accuracy, transparency, independence – and above all the ability to exercise their own consciences

I hope Lord Leveson is listening, because one thing he might easily do to arm the “Leveson generation” for an ethical future is to introduce a “conscience clause”. A simple device, it would be written into all reporters’ contracts allowing them to say “no” to any assignment they regarded as unethical or illegal, and would be enforced by the new regulatory body that replaces the Press Complaints Commission.

The idea is even backed by Rupert Murdoch. In a surreal exchange at Leveson in April, the mogul listened to the testimony of a News of the World reporter about “constant bullying” at the title, and asked: “Why didn’t she resign?” Lord Leveson intervened to say: “She probably needed a job.” Murdoch then agreed that a conscience clause might be a “good idea” – even though he had previously never heard of it

It has wide backing from others, including the National Union of Journalists, MPs and media academics. Bill Hagerty, editor of the British Journalism Review and a former editor of The People, has been campaigning for it since well before the phone-hacking scandal, objecting to the “purposeless waste of sending reporters out on prurient assignments”.

Of course, the details of the wording and enforcement would need to be carefully crafted, but this may not matter too much since the value, in practice, would be largely symbolic. The very existence of a conscience clause, even if not invoked, would be a powerful tool in empowering the next generation of journalists.

Out of the murky soup of evidence to Leveson, here is something readily digestible, and with bite. And there can few proposals in front of the judge embraced jointly by the “Great Satan” Murdoch and his nemesis the National Union of Journalists.

This one, as they say, could run.

Michael Williams is Head of Media Ethics in the School of Journalism and Digital Communication at the University of Central Lancashire, and a former head of news at The Sunday Times

June 25, 2012 The Independent

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