Privacy and media ethics
By: Farah Zia
Kelvin Mackenzie, a former editor of the Murdoch-owned The Sun spoke about the “tremendous amount of snobbery involved in journalism” while talking to the media ethics inquiry about tabloids, in January this year.
He gave a hypothetical example of hacking into Tony Blair’s cell phone to discover that Blair had bypassed his cabinet in order to go to war. “If you publish it in The Sun, you get six months in jail. If you publish it in The Guardian, you get a Pulitzer.”
Having no obvious connection with the Maya Khan TV programme, though the two may somehow be linked regarding issues of individuals’ privacy and journalistic ethics, the quote of Mackenzie does ring a bell about the double standards applied in our own media world where the small fry gets caught and punished; for the rest, it’s business as usual.
There used to be a time when things were simple in the world of journalism. It was simple saying that there has to be a delicate balance between rights of privacy and freedom of speech. It was simple saying public figures don’t have privacy rights. It was simple stating that a journalist’s job is to cull out the truth and that journalists do have the good sense to weigh the public good element against privacy. And, it was easy telling the editors that they must exercise their editorial judgment.
All of the above was a subject of debate even then. None of it was taken as a given, with hunky-dory consequences. But at least the debate was confined within certain parametres.
Somewhere down the line, things started becoming complex, grey, interest-driven and unimaginably big. Being in the public domain, they are still subject to yardsticks of ethics and law. It’s just that the simplistic definitions from yesterday are no more valid. A journalist’s job is now as much about bringing out the truth before people as selling the product he works for. Privacy that never sat easy with freedom of expression is now at absolute variance with it.
This conflict is more pronounced on television where the race for ratings and advertising revenues is the primary consideration. Editorial judgment is all about whatever sells. Not that print journalism stands absolved. They both make ludicrous attempts at invading privacy in the name of investigative journalism.
On television, the desire for profits has blurred any distinction between one genre and the other (just as the reporters in print write analysis as investigative reports). The political talk shows are designed, or are at least watched, as entertainment. The morning shows that ought to have been designed to entertain and inform, in their bid to venture into investigative journalism, end up as exercises in moral policing. We don’t know where showbiz begins and journalism ends.
That is why Maya Khan’s show was a problem. But Maya Khan was not the first one to take a microphone and camera into people’s faces. The news channels did that long before her. They have not even shied away from taking the mikes and cameras into hospital wards seeking comments from injured people who happen to be bomb victims. They have covered funerals like they never should have.
The anchorpersons act less like journalists and more like activists. Privacy rights are not their concern because what they handle are public figures. It was nothing short of a miracle watching the ailing president of the country return, breathe and even deliver a speech or give an interview after counting all the diseases these anchorpersons had claimed he had.
How this public figure definition is stretched in the corporate media only makes one cringe with fear. What the journalists don’t realise is that as beneficiaries of this market-driven media, they too have become public figures of sorts. This qualifies them to forfeit their own privacy rights.
Source: The News