Corruption in and of the Media seems to be descending to new never-before explored depths. The topic has been in the spotlight for quite some time and doesn’t seem to be isolated to only one large media conglomerate.
It is ironic to see the media on trial when one of the primary purposes of journalism – particularly investigative journalism – “is to uncover concealed wrongdoing, including corruption, within various social institutions,” (Spence, 2011, p. 217).
This essay discusses and evaluates some recent cases of media corruption with reference to journalism and ethics.
Ever since the first News of the World (NOTW) phone-hacking scandal (Hackgate) was beamed into our living rooms in 2006, the story has generated a lot of interest from the public and media alike – cannibalism is alive and well; good news I think (no pun intended).
The bottom line is that various laws were broken by the journalists during the course of information gathering. Police were bribed, phones were hacked and people paid off. We must remember however, that ultimately, the ensuing news stories were voraciously consumed by the public.
Carl Bernstein, one of the American investigative journalists who broke the Watergate scandal in the seventies, recently spoke on the BBC’s Newsnight programme. He said that News International (the UK division of News Corporation and parent company of NOTW) is a “semi-criminal press at the bottom of the sewer-level of journalism.”
During the interview he also made a comment that the “British public lapped up – this type of tabloid journalism,” raising the question of whether this type of information is in the public’s interest or of interest to the public?
Surely, any ethical infringements lay on both sides equally; on the press, for resorting to this type of gutter-journalism, and on the public, for allowing and at times even demanding this type of trash. In order to achieve this level of penetration, it’s been said that, Murdoch needed to corrupt an institution, “capture the political system, the media, and the cops of a great nation,” (Newsnight, 2011).
Worse still, Bernstein mentioned that many “other journalists have stood by and said: Oh, this is fine, we understand it, we’ll wink at it, we’ll laugh at it, it’s kind of funny.” Not before long “you realize that this is a terrible business and that a whole country has been polluted.”
Whether it was in regard to coverage of Royalty, the Soham murders, the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, or even 9/11 victims’ families, all of these cases have revealed that News International’s management condoned “negligent or purposeful abuse of information in violation of epistemological and ethical commitments” (Spence, 2011, p. 25). This forms the basis for Alan Gerwirth’s principle of generic consistency (PGC). According to PGC, anything that infringes on a person’s “universal rights to freedom and well-being” goes against universal ethics.
Comparing the Hackgate scandal to Watergate, Bernstein said that “just like Nixon corrupted his Whitehouse administration, Murdoch has corrupted the press under his watch.”
As mentioned previously, News Corp. is not the only culprit here. We all “know what kind of aura existed at News of The World and other publications,” Bernstein added, “and this isn’t just about Murdoch’s papers because as Murdoch went deeper into the gutter – others followed suit just as they did in this country [America] when the New York Post started to go down.” Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the first time News Corporation found itself at the hot end of a fire stoker.
In the late 90’s, a US-based Fox investigative programme, The Investigators, had finished putting together an exposé on Monsanto, one of the world’s largest chemical companies.
The Investigative team, chiefly: Steve Willson and Jane Akre, wanted to expose the cover-up which concealed the link between Bovine Growth Hormone – injected into milk-producing cows to increase yields – and cancer. Monsanto markets BGH under the Posilac brand.
They wanted to present and discuss two topics in their programme : (1) The Milk and (2) The Media (Willson & Akre, 2000).
The Milk: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Is it still ‘nature’s most perfect food’ when dairymen are injecting their cows with the artificial hormone BGH many scientists link to cancer? How many Americans even know their milk has changed as a result of secret injections down on the farm? Why is this approved in the U.S. but banned in in all of Europe and unapproved through Canada and several other countries? And if there is nothing wrong with BGH, why has its maker Monsanto fought so hard to avoid honest labels which would identify milk from hormone-treated cows and allow consumers to choose for themselves?”
The Media: Ã¢â‚¬Å“How many news organizations have been subjected to pressure not to tell the truth by those who stand to profit most from continued use of BGH? And beyond deciding not to tell the story at all, how frequently do news organizations insist their reporters slant the story in favor of the special interests that may threaten to sue or cancel advertising?”
The story was due to air during the scheduled slot, but at the last minute Fox decided not to run the story in its full format and instructed the reporters to “forget it.”
Monsanto was one of Fox’s largest sponsors – with brands like Roundup and NutraSweet – and they [Fox] were afraid of either being sued or losing valuable advertising dollars. Either way, Fox acted in a corrupt manner by omitting the story from public view.
Coincidentally, Murdoch had just spend $3 billion to acquire the new US-based TV stations and needed to protect his investment. Fox management had reportedly said “we’ll tell you what the story is; the news is what we say it is” (Willson & Akre, 2000).
Willson and Akre were instructed to suppress the story and not to take it to any other news outfit. When they refused to present the story with key facts missing, they were eventually fired for insubordination (among other reasons).
They both sued Fox but the charges were dismissed. Under US law, Fox argued, “it’s not illegal to lie to the public” – in truth the FCC has a number of rules of conduct, but none of them are part of law or enforceable by law.
A utilitarian like John Stuart Mill may disagree with Fox’s conduct because the overall maximization of utility (such as health) depends on people being informed by way of relatively accurate, if not perfect, reporting (Spence, 2011, p. 166).
As of 2010, The Walt Disney Company (ABC, History Channel, ESPN) is the world’s largest media conglomerate, with News Corporation (Fox News, New York Post, Wall Street Journal, MySpace), Time Warner (CNN, TIME, HBO) and Viacom (MTV, Paramount Pictures) ranking second, third and fourth respectively. Between them, they control a tremendously large proportion of global media.
Furthermore, many of the people who sit on the boards of these media corporations also sit on boards of other organizations. At times, the combination of board membership is directly attributed to a self-serving conflict of interest. For example, Aylwin Lewis sits on the board of Walt Disney (ABC) and Halliburton (the company contracted to rebuild Iraq). Similarly, Viet Dinh is on the board of News Corporation and authored the US Patriot Act. Silencing any opposition to the Patriot Act would (one could imagine) only require a corporate directive to suppress certain types of media from general circulation.
(Spence, 2011) says that within “the increasingly concentrated and politically aligned corporate media, journalism has in some instances itself become corrupt, leaving it with a second and morally negative relationship with corruption.”
During the Soviet Era, Pravda (truth in Russian) was a state-controlled newspaper which, by and large, was ignored by most citizens who sought to find their own reliable and independent sources of information.
We could say that the concentration of corporate media is the modern-day equivalent of the soviet-run Pravda. And if this is the case, then what’s the point of communicating if nobody trusts the information source?
It now seems as though certain ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by the press, may find themselves being curtailed by the very governments they once sought to monitor. This is a dangerous opportunity for various groups to get a leg-up in the fight to silence the press.
Character is supposedly formed through education and actions that over time become habits of behavior; for the sake of this argument let’s call them “professional routines and practices” (Spence, 2011, p. 202). Therefore, the effectiveness of professional codes of ethics can only be attained by “creating climates of opinion and control mechanisms to ensure that flawed characters become professionally unacceptable” (Sanders, 2003, p. 162).
By that same logic, we could argue that the gradual degradation of ethics and increasing corruption in the media are equally habit-forming activities. If left unchecked, these small daily infringements will eventually lead to universally-unacceptable transgressions.
Some journalists, like George Monbiot at The Guardian, are saying that “our job is to hold power to account,” instead, “most of the profession simply ventriloquises the concerns of the elite.” In an effort to stem corruption and unethical conduct, he suggests that journalists should commit to a “kind of Hippocratic Oath” (Monbiot, 2011).
Another classic example of corruption in the media is the “cash for comment” case, where John Laws – a well-known Australian radio personality – abused his position of influence over two-million listeners in favor of a group of banks for a cash payment of A$1.2 million. The transfer of money between the banks and Laws was kept secret from the general public and his audience.
The Laws’ case highlights not only his disregard for the audience, but by hiding the payment of the hefty sum, he also broke the MEAA Code of Ethics #4, which states:
Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.
If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, even if there had been no payment for the advertorial, by not disclosing his relationship with the banks, Laws also broke MEAA Code of Ethics #5:
Disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism. Do not improperly use a journalistic position for personal gain.
Were Laws’ advertorials accurate and unbiased? Probably not – considering that his rhetoric was quite different prior to the cash transaction. In changing his views as a result of payment, Laws also broke MEAA Code of Ethics #6:
Do not allow advertising or other commercial considerations to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence.
When the cat eventually jumped out of the bag, Laws argued that he was an entertainer not a journalist, and therefore not bound by the MEAA Code of Ethics. In defence against disciplinary action by ACMA, 2UE stated that the payment contracts were not between the radio station and the banks, but between Laws and the banks. Of course, such defence doesn’t satisfy even the most basic scrutiny because it is very hard to believe that they [2UE] had no knowledge of the transactions given the material that was being broadcast.
Even if we give 2UE the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the radio station was unaware of the financial transaction(s), it should have been its professional duty to investigate why Laws had changed his stance. To be inconsistent is to be guilty of self-contradiction, of which Laws clearly was; and this should have gotten the alarm bells ringing.
In his book The Universal Journalist, David Randall argues that “there are only two kinds of journalism: good and bad – [Good] journalism – is, in every sense of the word, universal,” and thus runs parallel to universal public morality (Spence, 2011, p. 200).
In our new digital world of mobile phones, the internet, blogs and iPads, no longer do media journalists prioritize source accuracy and reliability in news reporting over ratings. Journalists fabricate stories, create fraudulent documents, and for personal gain collude with the criminal elements of society. Similarly, news organizations are competing for “popularity, high ratings and advertising dollars.” Without anyone to answer to, “media has stopped being a reliable tool for information, and has instead become a dominant tool for fraud and manipulation,” (True Focus, 2004).
The industry needs to clean up its act and make a hasty return to a traditional ethics-motivated business model.
In the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Good night, and good luck.”
Bernstein, C. (2011, July 9). Murdoch’s Watergate? Retrieved October 18, 2011, from The Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/07/10/murdoch-s-watergate.html
Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. (n.d.). Media Alliance Code of Ethics. Retrieved October 19, 2011, from Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA): http://www.alliance.org.au/media-alliance-code-of-ethics
Monbiot, G. (2011, July 11). This media is corrupt – we need a Hippocratic oath for journalists. Retrieved October 17, 2011, from The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/11/media-corrupt-hippocratic-oath-journalists
Newsnight, B. (2011, July 21). Carl Bernstein on hacking and corruption at News International. Retrieved October 16, 2011, from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTt__Lz7QCg
Sanders, K. (2003). Ethics and Journalism. London: Sage.
Spence, E. H. (2011). Media, Markets and Morals. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
The Telegraph. (2011, September 6). Phone hacking: timeline of the scandal. Retrieved October 17, 2011, from The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/phone-hacking/8634176/Phone-hacking-timeline-of-a-scandal.html
True Focus. (2004, September 27). Media Bias vs. Media Corruption. Retrieved October 20, 2011, from BlogCritics.com: http://blogcritics.org/culture/article/media-bias-vs-media-corruption/
Wikipedia.org. (n.d.). Concentration of media ownership. Retrieved October 18, 2011, from Wikipedia.org: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concentration_of_media_ownership
Willson, S., & Akre, J. (2000). Bovine Growth Hormone Bulletin: Monsanto. Retrieved October 17, 2011, from FoxBGHSuit: http://www.foxbghsuit.com/