5. Breaking the code?

(continued from Ethics in journalism and the Cheryl Kernot affair)

by Desley Bartlett

The debate about journalist Laurie Oakes’ exposure of Cheryl Kernot’s “biggest secret” has, for the first time in almost a decade, brought the esoteric discussion of journalism ethics into the popular vernacular. But the discourse has focussed on a narrow and general examination of journalism “ethics” and lacked any meaningful assessment of the philosophy that grounds ethical decision-making.

Commentators, members of the public and journalists have been so fixated on the central issues – public v private matters and the timing of the disclosure of the Kernot-Evans affair – that there has been a paucity of real discussion about what Donald Horne says is the mass media’s duty to provide “a marketplace of ideas about what is going on, why it is going on, and what should be going on” (Horne 1994, p.9).

One spectacular exception is Laurie Oakes himself.

The fact is, Oakes is a free agent in terms of journalism ethics. He is not a member of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and, therefore, is not subject to the MEAA (AJA) Code of Ethics that contains 12 prescriptive clauses about journalists’ conduct (MEAA1997). The Canberra Press Gallery does not have a separate code of professional behaviour for members. Australian Consolidated Press (publishers of the Bulletin magazine) does not have a journalists’ ethical code nor does the Nine television network.

Nine Network news director Paul Fenn says although some Nine news journalists are not members of the MEAA, “Nine does endorse the MEAA code and in a general sense it was a consideration in our deliberation about disclosing the Kernot secret” (Fenn 2002).

But it is in the ethos of the AJA Code, embodied in its preamble and guidance clause, that provides the raison d’etre for journalists’ search for professional moral virtue.

The MEAA Report of the Ethics Review Committee (1997, p.16) says the aim of the preamble is to “express as simply as possible the elements of journalism that matter most”. That is, truth-seeking journalism as a public service, a lubricant of democracy and a friend of freedom of expression. Elsewhere, the committee’s report endorses the notion of a “green light” approach to ethical dilemmas and “leaving the judgement to individual journalists” (MEAA 1997, p.21).

So whether they are subject to the sanctions of the code or not, the code provides journalists with a foundation upon which to make ethical decisions. Journalist Errol Simper (1995, p.17) summed up journalistic reality in a discussion of the proposed (now adopted) Code of Ethics:

How many journalists, confronted with a difficult decision, will scan the new code, desperately seeking an answer to their dilemma? Is that lady too distressed to interview? Is he/she sufficient enough of a public figure to warrant extra tough examination …?

Simper’s prediction was probably right but wrong in the case of Laurie Oakes. Few, if any, journalists consult the code on a clause-by-clause basis when faced with an ethical dilemma, but it is clear Oakes struggled with the moral reasoning behind his disclosure of the Kernot-Evans affair and its timing. Whether that struggle was more about commercial considerations, payback or legal issues is impossible to determine but his July 16 Bulletin article in response to criticism (Oakes 2002b, p.19), goes some way to justify his apparent acceptance of journalists’ public responsibilities and accountability as enshrined in the Code of Ethics:

I made a judgement I … believe was right.

 

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