Time for @mediaalliance to take charge of secret tapes ethics debate: @margokingston1 #MediaMargo #MediaWatch


I sent this email to the Media Alliance today.

Dear Media Alliance,

Last night’s Media Watch discussed the ethical dispute among journalists over the ethics of recording interviewees without their permission. The dispute shows serious disagreement on the matter. The Age believes it is always ethical. Some others, including me, believe it it permissible only in exceptional circumstances:

After some debate among journalists on Twitter, I commissioned media law and ethics professor Mark Pearson, who writes the No Fibs media column, to state his opinion. The result, Selling out ethical journalism: @journlaw on @theage secret recordings, served to open a wider debate on the matter, and I believe it is time for the Alliance to get involved.

As a long-time member of the Alliance who breached ethics early in my career through sheer ignorance, I have long advocated discussion, debate and resolution of ethical issues as they arise, not by way of punishment, but to strengthen our profession (See my 2002 speech to a corruption conference, Ethics overboard: Promoting integrity in the moment of choice).

It is a matter of ongoing frustration to me that unlike passionate debates on the question ‘What is a journalist?’ overseas, there is virtual silence in Australia. As journalists, professional and citizen, we cannot argue for special protections and exemptions from privacy laws unless we can distinguish ourselves from non-journalists. To me, a commitment to professional ethics is a core requirement of anyone wishing to describe themselves as ‘a journalist’, and yet there is little guidance or discussion on what they are.

Last year the Canberra Press Gallery Committee (PGC) refused membership to a journalist wishing to write for a new media publication, and it emerged that there were no written requirements for membership. The Committee promised to remedy this extraordinary insider practice, and I urged it to include a requirement that the applicant commit to acting in accordance with a reputable code of ethics. In The Press Gallery contemplates reform, in May, 2013, I wrote:

“I feel that journalists, not media employers, are the true representatives of the 4th Estate, because, like judges, members of the government and parliamentarians, they are meant to contribute to the health of democracy. As the recent Senate Inquiry into media reform proved, media employers in the private sector believe their sole objective is to maximise profits. Journalists, not employers, have personal responsibility for complying with the ethical codes of their ‘profession’. Thus it has always been journalists, not their employers, who have pushed hard for ethical accountability through external bodies like the Press Council and internal mechanisms like charters of editorial independence and employer commitments to ethical practice.

“The Press Gallery Committee has, perhaps by accident, real power, which is a highly unusual state of affairs for journalists. They thus have the opportunity, at a time when reform of the PGC is necessary, to shape it in a way which empowers ethical journalism in traditional and new media, and thus makes the case for the special privileges granted to journalists, including exemption from privacy laws and protection from disclosing sources, to continue and be strengthened.

“The Media Alliance this week announced a new membership scheme under which social media can sign up to its code of ethics. This innovation would allow the PGC to include as a requirement for membership that applicants have committed themselves to and will comply with a credible code of journalistic ethics, whether or not they chose to be an Alliance member.

“In my dreams the PGC would consider ethical complaints, perhaps via volunteer elders of journalism who have retired. The object would not be to punish, or even to adjudicate, but to publish considered opinions on ethical issues as they arise in practice for the purpose of informing and enriching ethical debate.

“Ideally the issue of ethical journalism and its promotion will be addressed for all journalists one day. I feel that compliance with an ethical code is the main signifier of a journalist, and must be strengthened as part of our effort to save the profession/art/craft from extinction.”

(The Press Gallery committee has not taken up my ideas, and its revised requirements are still very vague.)

I also believe the Media Alliance can and should take charge of the journalist ethics debate to help members and strengthen the profession. I therefore request that it seek input from members with a view to publishing a practice statement on the ethics of recording private conversations with interviewees.

The purpose 0f this would not be to pass judgement on the conduct of a journalist, but to settle the issue, enhance journalism’s standing and address what I consider to be the startling defence by The Age of secret surveillance by journalists.

As a practitioner collaborating with citizen journalists, who I require to comply with the Media Alliance code of ethics, I feel your intervention would also be appreciated by citizens seeking to ethically practice journalism, and may well encourage them to become members of a dynamic, interactive Alliance.

Yours sincerely,

Margo Kingston

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  1. Dr Mark Hayes says

    I would argue, following the MEAA Code, that journalists should (almost) always disclose they are recording when interviewing sources. There are very few & very exceptional circumstances when this can be justified, and only after other means to get needed information for a story have been tried & all but exhausted (infiltrating, bugging, & exposing corrupt businesses, gangs, politicians etc.). These have to be strongly justified on a very rare case by case basis. The Public Interest vs rigorous adherence to ethics test, and, very, very rarely, Public Interest & Impact will win out.

    • Hans von Chrismar says

      Justifying the means to get the end (result) seems to be the order of the day. It can’t however be justified, nor this it work in the long run; there are too many examples in history where journalists or Governments have applied this tactic, which seemed reasonable at first, which then has blown up in their faces. Basically you can only get away with unethical behaviour for so long.
      I still believe that in the end there are more “good” (ethical) people in this world than “bad” ones. It’s just that the “bad” ones have a very big mouth!

  2. Thom Mitchell says

    Right on, Margo.
    All that I can add is that if you are going to record the conversation “for the accuracy of note taking” then take your quotes immediately and delete the audio file. Better to just not record in secret at all, though.

  3. Laurie Forde says

    Spot on Margo.
    Journalists are responsible for ethical conduct in the media rather than media owners.
    They are the professionals and should not allow themselves to be bullied by owners like Murdoch who admit that they are running their own agenda through their outlets.
    To paraphrase Kerry Packer, “I pay the bills, they’ll print what I say”.
    Whatever that estate represents, it’s not the Fourth.

  4. margokingston says

    Interesting reply from Chris Warren, head of the Media Alliance today, published below.

    Dear Margo,

    Thanks for your email and I agree with your view that it only helps journalism to debate these issues and to acknowledge the complexities involved. Sometimes there isn’t a right or wrong answer and journalists can disagree in good faith.

    As you know, journalists record conversations whether they are at a media conference, conducting a face-to-face or a phone interview. The interview is sought by the journalist for a potential new story record. There is nothing secret about that –journalists identify themselves and their employer and interview subjects choose to speak to them. The record is usually written down in the form of notes or in shorthand, but it can also be an audio recording with or without vision.

    Personally, that’s why I think that knowledge of shorthand remains a key journalistic skill. But I acknowledge I may just be an old fogey!

    I know that many journalists now find an audio recording a useful aide-memoire to check the written record for errors because the notes were taken down in haste, as well as to clarify meaning. As such, the recording is a back-up that benefits the journalist and the interview subject, and can be useful should it need to be referred to in future. Journalists, of course, need to be aware of the law on this matter which can vary depending on the state and whether it is over the phone or over electronic means. In some electronic means the law is just unclear.

    This is a separate question as to whether a conversation or part of a conversation is “off the record”. There is often confusion (including among journalists themselves) about what “off the record” means. Originally, it meant information given on background to inform the journalist and meant “not to be used at all”. It was an agreement between the interview subject and the journalist that the particular conversation or piece of information was not to be used in a subsequent news story but would give the journalist depth and context.

    However, it is often used now to mean “not for direct quotation” and/or “not for attribution”. Although a lot of journalists recognise this confusion, we haven’t come up with something better yet.

    The incident you refer to may end up before the courts so I’m reluctant to comment on it directly. Nonetheless, we need to be clear that whether or not an interview is off the record (which is a purely ethical issue), is a separate question to how the interview is recorded (which may be either or both an ethical and a legal issue, depending on the state and the means of recording).

    Feel free to put this on your site and happy to talk further.

    With best wishes