Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

When the press loses its morals | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The crisis that the “News Corporation” media empire, and its American-Australian owner Rupert Murdoch, is facing – which has rocked Britain and has had wider repercussions across three continents – is not merely the crisis of a newspaper brought down by its own pride and blindness by relentlessly chasing scandals, but rather this is a crisis related to the essence of journalistic ethics and the future of the profession.

Are we isolated from this crisis?

Certainly not… the reason for this is not that Murdoch and his empire have investments in the Arab World, but rather because our own press – or let’s say our media – has its own problems and troubles, and could learn a lesson from the British crisis which has, so far, led to the closure of one of the highest circulated newspapers in the UK, and the downfall of a number of key figures in one of the world’s largest media institutions, as well as the arrest of prominent journalists, including the former Director of Communications for the British Prime Minister. The growing crisis has also led to the resignation of two high-ranking British police officers, a parliamentary inquiry, a Scotland Yard investigation, a number of investigations by the US justice apparatus, and calls for the course taken by the media to be rectified, and for a way of regulating the media to be found.

The media is not just an industry whose power and influence is based on its profitability, employment, and services, in the same manner as other industries. It is also one of the tools of power, and one of the chief pillars of governance. That is why it is often termed “the fourth estate”. This is due to the tremendous influence that the media has on politics and the economy, and more importantly public opinion. The media does not only convey information and record events, it also directly influences these same events and information by swaying public opinion. A former British MP summarized the increasing power of the media, in his analysis of the current confrontation between the political establishment and Murdoch’s media empire, by saying that “perhaps politicians are feeling jealous of journalists who have stolen much of their influence.”

This is where the problem lies. Nothing is more dangerous than the arrogance of power. Uncontrolled power contains the seeds of corruption and tyranny. Today the media possesses enormous power and an ever-growing influence, more than at any time in the past. This is happening in a complex world where interests intertwine and politics strongly intersects with business and the media. The press, which calls others to account and installs itself as an observer of politicians and public figures, sometimes forgets that it is also accountable and that its increasing influence brings with it greater responsibilities, but does not place it above the law. Practical experiences have proved that no authority can effectively monitor itself; there needs to be an external body that monitors the situation. Here a problem arises with regards to the freedom of the press, and a battle is raging between three schools of thought: The first rejects any sort of restriction on media freedoms, and regards any attempt in that regard as a hindrance upon the work of the press in terms of its ability to uncover the truth and provide the public with information. The second current believes the press has failed to monitor itself and has, at times, gone too far in exercising its authority. Therefore it is imperative to introduce rules and regulations to guarantee that the freedom of the press does not infringe upon personal liberties, and does not undermine other authorities in the hierarchical governing structure. The third current admits that the press has committed mistakes while exercising its freedom, and that some papers have broken the law and the moral code simply in order to pursue cheap sensationalism or to obtain a scoop. Thus, it is necessary to consolidate the profession’s code of ethics and find mechanisms to enforce these regulations effectively.

Some might say: we shouldn’t compare our media to theirs; their media is free whilst ours is restricted. This may be a valid point, but it does not change the fact that our media, despite all its problems, is influential. Even within the limited freedom available under the ceiling of current restrictions, our media wields profound influence over public opinion. This could be in the manner demonstrated by former Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, or along the lines of the role played by the media in the ongoing Arab uprisings and revolutions; whether to support and export these uprisings, or try and sabotage them. Indeed, the role of the media during the Arab Spring requires an in-depth study when the dust settles and the clouds dissipate.

Those who work in this profession, and lived through the evolution of its practices and its progress over the past few decades are aware of the magnitude of change that has occurred within journalism. They might even testify that the press has acquired, by varying degrees, more freedom than it enjoyed in the past, and has gained more influence than in earlier periods. This growing leverage can be ascribed to the change that has occurred within our societies and mentalities, and by a large extent to the communications and internet revolution which has broken all boundaries as they were traditionally understood, made censorship redundant, and provided free access to information which has become difficult to hide. With the increasing liberties of cyberspace and the outbreak of revolutions and uprisings highlighting the role of the media and its importance, there will inevitably be discussions about the role of our media and its future, especially as many countries are considering amending their laws to cope with the new satellite and digital media. Moreover, countries which have witnessed uprisings and revolutions shall work in the future, if the democratic transformation process is completed, to enact new laws and regulations for the media, to replace the old set of laws and institutions. It is worth noting that when the media has lost its sense of direction [in the past], it has helped to undermine fledgling democracies (like what happened in Sudan during its two democratic experiences), or to ignite civil wars in our region (like what happened in Lebanon).

Hence, the current debate taking place in Britain about journalistic ethics and the freedom of the press might offer us useful lessons in the days to come. Some say that the crisis in Britain primarily relates to the tabloid press which does not abide by the profession’s code of ethics, thus impelling some British politicians to dub it as “gutter journalism”, but we also know what has come to be termed as “yellow journalism” across the Arab World. The power of the press has gone to the head of some journalists in our region; others have been tempted by money, whereas a minority has transformed the press industry into outlets to sell their goods to the highest bidder.

The press shall forever function as a mirror of society, and in this sense I have no doubt that the British press will learn from the present crisis and will establish mechanisms and regulations that prevent abuse and violations of the professional code of ethics. Furthermore, the law – which stands above all else – will work to adapt to the changes that have occurred in the world of communications and the media in order to protect society and individual privacies. Journalists are keen to criticize restrictions on the freedom of the press, and I strongly believe in the importance of free media, but I do not consider it to be above the law, and I refuse to allow it to deviate when it loses its sense of direction or flouts its code of ethics. Because journalists are humans and not angels, they need mechanisms to guarantee their compliance with the media’s moral code, and to prevent them exploiting the huge influence enjoyed by the media