Monday, July 27, 2009

Mike Jempson (Photo: Blair Cummock)MediaWise director calls for Daily Telegraph to reveal if it paid for disc on MPs’ expenses claims

Mike Jempson, Director of the UK journalism ethics charity MediaWise, called for The Daily Telegraph to reveal whether it paid for the computer disc leaked to it containing information about British MPs’ expenses claims. He was addressing a media professionals’ work stream on ‘Investigative journalism—a two edged sword’ on 25 July, during a conference on ‘trust and integrity in the global economy’ held in Caux, Switzerland. Sometime investigative journalism that reveals wrongdoing may involve breaking the law, he said and The Telegraph should be ready to defend itself in court, if the material had been obtained by unlawful means.

The paper had properly published a series of scoops on the scandal of MPs’ systemic abuse of their expenses claims. It was in the public interest, and no jury would convict the paper, he believed.

MPs who were supposed to set an example were behaving irresponsibly and unlawfully.’ The scoops had ‘changed the political agenda and thinking, which will never be the same again,’ Jempson said, nonetheless journalists too have to accept the consequences of their actions..

A journalist of 35 years’ experience, Jempson told the conference that investigative journalism was about ‘digging deeper to get closer to the truth, for the benefit of civil society’. It would ‘quite likely upset people, especially those in financial, religious or political power.’ Investigative journalists act as ‘the eyes and ears of the public’ and therefore have a social purpose. ‘But investigative journalism may be regarded as subversive because it can challenge the status quo and give voice to minorities.’ It changed people’s attitudes and aimed to make a difference. But it was constantly faced with ethical dilemmas, as the Daily Telegraph scoops had shown.

He condemned blatantly unethical means such as the use of private detectives to obtain information illegally about members of the public, including their private bank accounts, telephone bills or criminal records. Such activities had been highlighted in 2006 in a report from the UK’s Privacy Commissioner and then two years ago when a royal editor of The News of the World was sent to jail after accessing phone messages of members of the royal family and celebrities. It was the first time in 40 years that a journalist had been jailed in the UK.

Journalists themselves must examine their own motives and be honest, and respect the rights and humanity of those they write about,’ Jempson said.

He stressed the extreme danger that investigative journalists sometimes operated under. He knew of some 200 journalists from 43 countries living in the UK who had had to flee their countries. Some journalists had lost their lives and some lived under death threats. ‘Journalism is one of the most dangerous professions in the world, and investigative journalists are the ones most at risk.’

He reported a recent experience in Egypt, training young journalists to give voice to the voiceless. He had taken two of them to a hillside area in east Cairo where some 10,000 zeballeen or rubbish collectors live, sorting and recycling the city’s domestic waste in the streets beneath their homes. The area stinks and better off Egyptians don’t know it exists, he said. Most of the inhabitants are poor Coptic Christians, and they feed food waste to pig kept in enclosures behind their homes. But when the swine flu scare started the government had killed all their pigs, destroying their livelihoods, even though there was no evidence that swine flu actually came from swine. The young journalists ‘produced some amazing stories about life in the area; one showed that the government’s rational had been completely wrong.’ There are ‘long term ramifications from that story,’ Jempson said. ‘What is fantastic is that they are suddenly discovering what journalism could be.’ There is a need to support such investigative journalism ‘that is challenging and dangerous’.

In the light of the danger faced by investigative journalists, Jempson pointed the work-stream participants to the International News Safety Institute (www.insi.orh) based in Brussels and the Exiled Journalists Network (www.exiledjournalists.net) set up to help journalists’ who had sought asylum in the UK.

Aad Burger, a Utrecht city councillor from The Netherlands, thanked the British journalists for exposing the MPs’ expenses scandal. This had had an effect in The Netherlands where MPs were now also under scrutiny.

A debate followed on the role of ‘citizen journalists’ including online and cell phone reporting. How were their ethical standards monitored, especially when much Internet material was only opinion and extremely dubious? But Jempson also commended the guitarist who put a song on the YouTube video sharing website, after his guitar had been kicked and broken by United Airlines baggage handlers. The song has now received some 4,600,000 online hits, and United Airlines, which had originally denied responsibility, had offered to pay for repairs to his guitar and welcomed his initiative to help improve customer relations.

Jempson said that many codes of conduct have been devised by journalists’ organisations, including clauses about not interfering with people’s private grief or responsible coverage of children, and appear on the MediaWise website www.mediawise,org,uk. He believes that ‘Information that is in the public interest should have no price tag’, and advised against ‘selling your story to newspapers - your integrity then gets called into question.’

Journalist quite properly question people motives, he said, but he concluded by posing the question, ‘What can be done to reinstate altruism as a valid motivation?’