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Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012

Media at the crossroads of profits and politics


By CHARLES SAMPFORD and RAMESH THAKUR

BRISBANE, Australia — On July 24, seven key News International personnel in the United Kingdom and one contracted private investigator were charged with 19 counts of conspiracy to hack mobile phone voice mails between 2000 and 2006. At long last, the allegations will be tested in court.

The Leveson inquiry continues to tarnish the institutional reputation of British politicians and press alike, especially but not solely News Ltd. The interest in the appropriate balance between media and state power extends beyond Britain.

In 2010, prominent print and electronic journalists in India were ensnared in the "Radiagate affair," named after political lobbyist Nira Radia, in an influence-peddling scandal for selling privileged access to politicians to commercial barons.

The volatility in the media world might seem inconsequential in comparison to the protracted crisis in the eurozone, the civil war in Syria and the nuclear impasse over Iran. Yet it is an integral part of and, in turn, contributes to the corrosive crisis of legitimacy afflicting many democracies. Many have lost faith in the integrity of core institutions — parliament, police and press — that sustain democratic governance.

The media-government relationship is critical for nurturing and sustaining democracy. Most of us value democracy and the market. The temptation always is for those with dollars gained in the market to influence decisions supposed to be governed by democratic principles — from political donations to super-PAC lobbying and outright bribery.

The reverse concern is that those voted into office may seek to convert political power into dollars for themselves or their parties. The media have a critical role in highlighting abuses in markets, democracies and their interaction.

However, most media institutions face particular dilemmas because they are key elements of an effective democracy and, simultaneously, commercial entities operating in markets seeking substantial and growing audience share and also revenue from them or advertisers. They benefit from favorable government decisions about media and other assets. These market interests can potentially distort the role that media play in the formation of public opinion.

Conversely, the privileged access that media corporations gain from politicians seeking a good press can skew government decisions in ways that distort markets, while also undermining democracy.

When asked why he had purchased the London Telegraph, given the apparently limited financial returns that could be expected, Lord Beaverbrook replied simply: "power" (such as political power).

If his answer were deemed acceptable, it would allow those gaining wealth from the market to dominate our polity. The media would not then stand astride both markets and democracy, but would become the means by which activities in one sphere dominate activities in the other.

Democratic competition requires a level playing field. If most of the playing fields are owned by those supporting one side and using their ownership to tilt the field, democracy could slide into oblivion.

To fulfill their critical role of speaking truth to power, media enterprises claim unique privileges: protection of sources, limitation of the reputational and privacy rights of those on whom they report. If they use their powers and privileges to fulfill this role, their claims are justified. Otherwise, they are merely traders for profit in assertions about the private lives of others.

If a rich individual were to seek control of a private hospital with a view to influencing the diagnoses, prognoses and treatments recommended by the professional doctors employed there, we would be aghast with horror and outrage. Yet some think it OK to do the same thing with media companies employing professional journalists analyzing events, predicting outcomes and identifying alternative policies for voters.

How can we ensure that the powers and privileges of the media are used for vital democratic purposes and not abused to increase the influence and nonmedia wealth of major shareholders?

Our approach does not rely on more government regulation. Nor does it rely on the diversity of views held by plutocratic owners. Instead, it centers on strengthening the profession of journalism through "institutional integrity" that requires a set of mutually reinforcing codes for reporters, editors and media board members, plus institutional arrangements for independent interpretation, guidance and enforcement. These codes and institutions can be seen as a form of "integrity system" that promotes the key role of the media in democracy, rather than the abuse of media power that undermines democracy.

Details of such integrity systems can be found at www.dbcde.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/142725/Institute-for-Ethics-Governance-and-Law.pdf) They include ethical advisers outside the chain of command for journalists; a Media Integrity Commissioner to assist journalists, editors and board members to develop their codes and give authoritative advice on their application; and a complaints body to adjudicate complaints and order the publication of adverse findings as prominently as the original reports.

Media activities undertaken under these codes would enjoy enhanced versions of the protections media currently enjoy. Those that do not would be subject to normal corporate regulation and defamation laws — with the possibility of U.S.-style damages for libel and privacy invasions attributed to negligence, recklessness or political motivation.

This will provide a very large economic incentive for news organizations either to pursue professional journalism with appropriate integrity measures, or to engage in entertainment that leaves real people alone and avoids all controversial statements, because the cost of getting them wrong is too great in the absence of the integrity measures.

Professor Charles Sampford is director of the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law (IEGL), based in Brisbane. Ramesh Thakur is professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, and adjunct professor at IEGL.


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