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UNIVERSITATEA BUCURESTI

FACULTATEA DE JURNALISM

SI STIINTELE COMUNICARII

ANUL III

IDD

Anul universitar

                                      ENGLISH CULTURE AND CIVILISATION

ETHICS AND JOURNALISM IN THE UK

In Teaching ethics to journalists in the United Kingdom, Barbara Thomas has an objective approach of the system of education regarding journalism. It is not only the rhetorical question: Why do we need ethics in journalism practice? This critical approach is based on the idea that we need to understand and share a set of common values and principles. At the same time, the personal experience played an important role in this approach. 

Teaching ethics to journalists in the United Kingdom

Ethics in journalism: critics ask whether they exist, and cynics may doubt if they are compatible with the reality of the media. And even more: media developments are in danger of creating a situation, where ethics seem to be a luxury in a commercialized media landscape. On the other hand, the media rely on their credibility and trust. They have to do everything to gain this trust again and again from their public. There­fore, it is their responsibility to allow the journalists, who are the main actors in gathering/processing and distributing information, to main­tain ethical standards. Journalists themselves are often made to confront ethical dilemmas which emerge from the different concepts that prevail in the profession. We might even say that it is a part of journalism to live with ethical questions because underlying ideas, like freedom of the press; objectivity, truth, honesty or privacy, might conflict. Being familiar with the main issues of a responsible journalism means finding our way through the thicket of details of individual cases where decisions are necessarily made. Spotting the issue(s) and promoting sound debate to arrive at well-balanced decisions is the ethical responsibility of every single journalist. Defending these decisions will become more and more difficult as a market-driven journalism expands. The ability to find and defend ethical standards must be acquired and promoted within the in­stitutions where journalists learn their professional skills. So we have to ask whether journalism training in the United King­dom meets these demands; if prospective journalists are confronted with ethical reflection which might enable them to withstand the press­ures of the media system? Is it acceptable to consider the training of journalists as a real, although informal, contribution to press account­ability in the United Kingdom? To answer these questions, this chapter will give a short overview of the education and training of journalists, and will present some results of interviews dealing with the role of ethics in journalism courses to come to a conclusion on how far the teaching of ethics contributes to the accountability of the British press and how this interconnects with other forms of accountability.

Journalism training in the United Kingdom

For a long time the education of journalists in the United Kingdom took place exclusively in newsrooms. Learning by doing, without any regu­lation of what the young journalists had to learn, was the generally accepted practice. It was not until 1965 that moves were made to define and impose concepts and outline syllabuses for the training of journalists. The University of Cardiff offered an academic training of journalists for the first time in 1970, but it was largely ignored by the publishers and journalists’ unions (Stephenson and Mory 1990: .197). Even today there are only a few journalism studies courses offered by universities. Most of the non-industrial education of journalists takes place in a variety of courses at colleges, institutes or other non-university places. Neverthe­less, an analysis of the contents of the syllabuses, as they are taught, and the answers of experts indicate that, these institutions have started to in­tegrate ethical reflection into their courses.

Traditionally, the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), and with less decisiveness and clarity, the National Council for the Training of Broadcasting Journalists (NCTBJ), have played an im­portant role in the shaping of the curricula of journalism training courses. Both councils, which are recognized and participated in by publishers and journalists/are interested in an extreme practically orientated training. They are important for the training market in so far as their formal awards are important for young journalists to secure em­ployment. While on the one hand it is in the interests of publishers for the most effective practical education, without any academic padding, to determine the curricula, there are two additional conditions which actually help make such short courses with a dominant focus on prac­tical skills effective. First, most of the courses which are accepted and accredited by the NCTJ or NCTBJ form part of postgraduate diploma courses building on academic studies at first degree level. Students are obliged to finance their journalism courses for themselves, or they ob­tain only small grants, so they are interested in quick results, and ac­quiring knowledge which is useful for getting, and using in, paid employment. As the universities are dependent on the numbers of stu­dents they register, and are in competition with other universities, their orientation to the expectations of potential or prospective students plays an important role. These conditions have led to rather homogene­ous syllabuses, within which universities and colleges have a reduced freedom to shape the teaching, according their own understanding of what is necessary.

The teaching of practical skills for broadcasting and print journalism accounts for between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of the total time allo­cated in all these courses. Besides, subjects such as national and local government, law for journalists and even shorthand - a rather unique element in comparison with journalism courses in other European countries - also form part of the practical training of journalists. Normally only one small module offers an opportunity to examine and acquire general media knowledge, and this is where it is felt that ethical questions can be covered.

Teaching ethics: the attitudes and opinions of experts

In May 1995 experts in eight journalism-teaching bodies were inter­viewed about their opinions on the ethical standards in journalism in the UK and their ways of teaching ethics.

When the experts were asked what they supposed to be the most critical aspects of British journalism, most of them denied that this would be the much-discussed privacy issue. Although some of those interviewed condemned the performance of the tabloid press, the majority of them spotted other problems but not always the same ones. Several times it was the lack of accuracy in reporting which was criticized. Others reproach journalism for the role it has played in the decline in deference in British society, particularly to its great and re­vered institutions such as the church, the body politic and the royal family. A lack of consciousness about the multicultural nature of the media audience and the orientation of journalists towards the higher socioeconomic levels were also criticized. Another expert blamed journalists for having no idea of their function in society. The following observation alludes to this motif of a social function for journalism being violated: I think that the worst part of the British press at this point is its political venality. I mean, its concentration of ownership . .. and the complete failure of the popular press to maintain any sort of connection with reality. Furthermore, the belief that the press is fooling itself when it thinks it acts in the public interest by pursuing stories which specifically interest the public, and the critique that this represents - ‘an ego-boosting trip
with many editors and many journalists’ - also reflects the idea of
the journalist’s function in society.

Most of the questions in the interviews were centered around the weight, the content and the methods of teaching ethics. A first hint as to the role ethical questions have in the courses concerned was given by the way in which the experts questioned described the general aims pur­sued by the institutions they represented. Those general aims are rather strongly dominated by the chances of the students on the labour mar­ket, as expressed in the following quotation: The fundamental aim is to get people jobs. It’s as simple as that, I mean this is a vocational course It has always been our intention to tuna out people who can get jobs. That has been our aim and we have been fairly successful at that.

Other similar comments included: ‘to prepare people to be fully effec­tive working professionals’; ‘to teach them how to be journalists and how to operate as journalists, certainly to start with the provincial newspapers’; ‘to train people to get a job in broadcast journalism’; ‘to enable students to be equipped to be employed in the broadcast industry’. So the focus of the declared aims of such courses lies in the intention to adapt the students as best as possible to the demands of the labour market in journalism. There are differences about the hier­archy of aims, but not in the lack of ethical components in the descrip­tions of general aims. Only a few experts wanted to create competences by which future journalists are able to reflect on their practice in the job and within the structures in which they work. The desire to connect a practical education with a critical analysis of society and the role of journalists in it was unique:

So, it’s a slightly different breed of journalists that we are hoping to produce. The kind of people who will no longer passively enter an organization that has very clear conventions, that have been laid down over many many years, but someone who is prepared with reflection to be a little more subversive and in that way to be able to create the ways of reporting and reflecting the life around them.

The aims of teaching ethics

When the experts talk about the aims they pursue in the teaching of ethics it is possible to characterize two main areas: the competence to act in a given situation and the competence of reflection. Competence of action is concerned with the potential performance of the students when an ethical dilemma is discussed, when the legitimacy or amorality of certain actions are debated, or with training by discussion or.con­sideration of concrete cases in the ability to make decisions in situations of conflict:

What I think the university does, what 1 try to do, is to present students with , situations that they could encounter while they are working as journalists. Where there are not any legal sanctions, where there aren’t any punitive measures that can be taken, but where they have to decide themselves as a matter of conscience, whether they will do or not do certain things such as revealing sources of information.

The exploration of the behaviour of students and their experiences is also orientated to action in relevant ethical situations:

What we do is to encourage them to discuss it in a more open way, not to posture, not to say, ‘Well, I am not a racist/ We would say, ‘How do you actually apply that on a day-to-day basis?’ So we go so far. But this is very much based on their experiences, that is the key element.

The second aim of teaching ethics, the competence of reflection, was mentioned by the experts on different levels. On one level the goal is to sensitize students to think about their behaviour and to stimulate reflection on ethical questions. This may be set within, and shaped by, a consideration of the cultural context of the media and journalism, which - as one expert stipulated - can itself be looked upon as unethical:

There is a real craziness about it; there is a so amoral a tradition of the press in Britain, so you have, to acknowledge that background. So you can’t then systematically approach the question in that specific cultural context where there is such a hostility to any ethical questions, industrially speaking.

The following quotations make allusions to contexts which should be considered through a reflection of journalistic decision making:

What is news about? What purpose does it serve socially? If it’s going to serve that purpose how should you go about doing it? How do we deal with the compromise of not having as many staff as we would like’ to cover the stories, having to produce information in a form that fits the requirements of my employer and also if it fits the requirements of the listener? You know, I think ethics goes to those points.

So what we are saying to the students is, as journalists you are making your own decisions about ethics, but not always in circumstances that you can choose. So you have to understand the media contacts, media structures, pol­itical economy and all that kind of thing in order to then understand what constraints there are on you making your own decision.

We look at the National Union of Journalists’ code of ethics. We look at the Press Complaints Commission’s code of ethics. But for comparison purposes we look as it happens at the Scandinavian countries and we look at the Nor­wegian code of ethics.. We have an American code of ethics which we look at as well I think this increases the awareness of potential journalists as to their own responsibility of what they write. They then have the consequences and the implications of what they write.

Because the part of the course that I teach from media institutions and prac­tices would deal with questions of ethics and the questions of whether there are easily defined parameters in contemporary society with crises of faith and belief being quite pervasive in that postmodern fashion .. . And so I would look at this very much in terms of embedding of ethics in the whole contemporary debate because otherwise you could have a very closed view of journalistic practice.

So the experts intend; to create a place for reflection on journalistic practice; to implement knowledge about decision making and opi­nion-forming processes in journalism, and to impart the idea that jour­nalists have to make their own ethical decisions under the given conditions. The intention is to raise the consciousness of prospec­tive journalists of the consequences and implications of what they write, and the subject is embedded in a wider social debate. In this way ethical reflections are separated from normative appeals to do the ‘right thing’, and instead there is the intention to create the idea of con­ditioning for ethical decision making and acting.

Given this stance, which considers the whole system of the media, one consequence may be that the postulation of ‘right’ norms and values is neglected, and that what is aspired to is qualification for autonomous ethical decision making, which is to be defended even against resistance. The understanding of ethics is one of a continuous process of decision making, and this is the reason why no defined values are taught but students are encouraged to make up their own minds about practical ethical questions.

So in the main the experts want to achieve a competence of reflection, which ought to develop a consciousness about the conditions and struc­tures that determine the performance of the individual professional. The orientation to, or the searching for, guidelines or binding norms or values is of no great importance.

The representation of ethics in syllabuses

In deciding whether ethics is a special subject in syllabuses, or is inte­grated into different courses and seminars, the role of the NCTJ is quite, important. As this organization fixes the standards of training for print journalists, develops examples of curricula, accredits the journalism courses and administers the examinations, its decision against there being an identified subject of ethics in the curricula carries substantial weight. This decision is heavily criticized by some experts:

The NCTJ is a body which was established some time ago by the journalists’ union and the publishers and it has a very old-fashioned, a very limited view on what education for journalists should be. And therefore we are con­strained by that tradition and don’t do as much background scholarly aca­demic work in the diploma as we would like or as our students are capable of.

Similarly, the NCTBJ and its ideas about ethics in the training of jour­nalists were not well received by the following expert:

I think it is fair to say that the way we teach journalistic ethics would not be at the top of their (the NCTBJ’s) list. I think their concern will be more that we are turning out people who are actually able to do the job. But it would be most unusual if a course in journalism did not, some way or other, deal with . journalistic ethics. The other experts neither seem to appreciate this reduction of knowl­edge or orientation in favour of a high concentration on teaching practi­cal skills, because they all - with one exception — defended the fact that their institutions had found more or less well-defined ways of dealing with ethical questions in special seminars besides the integration of ethics in practical training.

There is one module in all the syllabuses which is dedicated to sev­eral aspects of media analysis, concerning the performance as a whole of the media in society. While the naming of practical modules is rather similar, this has different titles which try to catch the attention of the students who are estimated not to be very interested in such rather aca­demic subjects: ‘Media analyses’; ‘Media topics’; ‘Media and society’, or The reporter and the reported’: these courses are the place where issues of journalistic ethics may be addressed according to the interests and “ commitments of the teaching bodies and lecturers. The NCTJ does not suggest a specific subject called ethics, but it demands that ethical as­pects are installed in everything, and that the students acquire a knowl­edge of the code of practice of the Press Complaints Commission. In a similar way the NCTBJ expects the teaching bodies to present the BBC’s Producer Guidelines and similar codes of the Broadcast Standards Council or Broadcast Complaints Commission to the students.

In one instance practical-ethical problems were debated regularly one hour each week; another course offered single sessions or lectures on ethical topics. Only two of the courses accredited by the NCTJ offered special courses named ‘Ethical issues in journalism’ or ‘Duties and dilemmas’ which lasted ten and thirteen weeks respectively.

Besides the guidelines of the NCTJ and NCTBJ, it is the students themselves whose motivation is not to answer positively to an expansion of ethical subjects in the curricula. The experts mainly think that they only want to achieve practical skills:

My experience over a couple of years that I have run this course now is that journalism students tend to come into this course with a kind, of notion that all they need from the course is to acquire practical skills that can then lead them to get employment in the industry. In a sense you can’t blame them be­cause that is what the industry itself emphasizes.

I think an important thing to stress is that the students do not come on to a course like this in order to learn journalistic ethics. They would not see that as the main reason why they would come on a course like this, it is still to acquire the skills.

The relevance of ethics for examinations

As all the modules in the curricula are normally compulsory and not optional so, too, are the ethical elements. Ethics is of more or less im­portance in the final examination of students, however. It is possible that ethical subjects are an element of the exam, depending on the role of the lecturer; if the weight of the ethics module has been equalized to the other module; or the fact that the ethics module is one-twelfth of the whole course is reinforced by applying ethical criteria in the assessment of other student work  Most weight is given to the subject at a university where ethics counts for one-eighth of the course. Such assessment of the ethics-related parts of the curricula is greater than that required by the NCTJ which desires only that students prove that they are aware of ethical aspects of the profession throughout their courses and during final examinations.

Changes in the curricula?

There are several statements in the interviews which show a certain dis­content about the quantity and the quality of journalistic ethics in col­lege and university courses. One expert explained that this has arisen because of the dominant role of the NCTJ:

We are really constrained in terms of the development of the course by the National Council for the Training of Journalists who are already hostile to­wards teaching an extra course at all, which they don’t care about. 1 have accreditation meetings with them which drive me crazy. Because I say to them: ‘What do you think about ethics? Or what do you think about teaching some of that or some of this?’ and they say: ‘Oh, wasted time, don’t do this.’

Others are looking for possibilities to deal more intensively with ethics not only in teaching but also in supporting research:

We will, I hope, be given money for research. And one of the areas that I would personally be very interested in and encourage is, whether it’s me or somebody else, will be ethics. When I was in the States I was fascinated to see the length and the depth of the research that has been done into ethics by the academic server there.

This appreciation of US research and also methods of teaching can also be found in the following quotation: There is a lack of kind of expertise in diversity teaching, I think there is a lack of materials, relevant British material, or even European materials the bulk of materials are American but they are not terribly accessible by the students. They tend to get turned off, and there is always an excuse, ‘Well, that is American.’ So we do need materials. And some of the techniques the Americans have I think can also be useful. So I am off to the States in June to begin sort of finding what we can learn, what we can use and what we can doubt.

Cooperation

The efforts, evidenced in these answers, to approach ethics more inten­sively in research and teaching have not yet reached the phase where cooperation in projects seems to have been suggested or deemed necessary. The majority of the experts give the impression that they feel - about ethics - like lone voices in the wilderness:

My experience of this is a perfectly personal experience and direct one. I spent years in America, and when I came back one of the things I wanted to do, because I was appalled by the quality of the debate about press freedom, that was going on, and 1 really wanted to start it and all attempts that I have made to sort of interest people like the UK Press Gazette, you know, the trade newspaper. I had a conversation with the editor, and I said ‘Why don’t we raise the ethics flag?’ and he said: ‘Not interested Ethics? It’s not an issue.’ It’s just not a major issue within the socialization of the profession except as seen as a threat.

Another expert denies that other institutions would be interested in ethics:

I know of no evidence that we, the professional bodies, are interested in that thing. If you look at their agendas they might be interested in the teaching of shorthand or they are interested in whatever. You can talk to them but I would like to see on what agendas or what things they send around to people like me do actually increase the teaching of ethics There are ob­viously very vigorous people who are writing books and researching things. but I think that they feel that they are swimming against the tide.

There were only a very few cases where partners in cooperation were named; for example, the National Union of Journalists or the European Journalism Training Association.

Methods of teaching ethics

Considering the methods used in teaching ethics it is remarkable that there ,is hardly any systematic approach. ‘As it comes up’ is the oft-repeated formula for the handling of ethical issues which seems to be the answer of the experts to the difficult situation they have to defend. They see their intention to teach ethics confronting so many difficulties. Or as one expert put it: I think it is fair to say that despite the haphazard nature of the input on ethics none of our students leaves here without an understanding at least that there are ethical concerns in the field It is not that we have singled out ethics for this treatment. It is that we do everything within the context of the practical workshop. And this is obviously a very strange way of doing things but it is very British.

It is obvious that the experts interviewed avoid a systematic approach to and a theoretical framework for ethical topics within journalism. There are several reasons for this: the practical orientation of the cours­es; a lack of opportunity to teach ethics; the constraints of the curricula; the lack of British teaching materials; and the expectations of the stu­dents. On the other hand, there is the prevailing haphazard way of deal­ing with ethics, according to the necessities of practical work and often stimulated by case studies. Two different forms can be observed.

1                    Students are presented prepared case studies which contain a specific ethical problem towards which they have to find their own position and argue within a debate or a written essay. The advantage of this method is seen in the fact that the teachers can give clear input oh the subject and that the students are confronted with real subjects from the, world of the media. The main areas of conflict in these cases are issues of privacy and conflicts of interest. These advantages are also cited when representatives of media-accrediting bodies, journalists or other experts come in and dis­cuss cases from their own practical work. The disadvantages are seen in the fact that these cases do not always emerge from the experiences of the students, and therefore do not stimulate reflection on their own beha­viour: Another disadvantage seems to be that reflection on underlying norms and values is left unaddressed when the concrete circumstances of a case tend to dominate.

2                    2   An experienced-orientated approach utilizes what happens with the stu­dents When they produce their practical work during the courses, and takes these incidents as a starting-point for discussions about the ethical dimensions of what they have just gone through. This method is defended as having the advantage that students are highly motivated, because they grapple with their own practice/their interests and values, and such on­going reflection is likely to be more effective. It has to be added that the haphazard nature of this method, when it is the only one to be used, is a serious disadvantage, because there might be many subjects which do not come up during the studies and so are never discussed.

The media topics of the day and the experiences of students during
their internships are other possibilities which are used to motivate con­
siderations of ethical issues in the courses.

Conclusion

The evaluation of the interviews shows that the ethical issues of journal­ism have begun to enter the curriculum. Although notions of responsi­bility do not normally form part of the general aims of the education of journalists, the intensity with which the experts plead for the necessity of the competence of reflection as a teaching aim demonstrates how strongly they perceive the problem. Ethical aspects can be found more or less explicitly located in the syllabuses; they are to a certain degree relevant for examination and there are clearly defined desires to incor­porate them even more in research and teaching. There is great interest in looking at the experiences and practices in this field in the USA, although it is clear that there are limits in transferring them. A great problem seems to be that most experts give the impression they are the only ones who care about the issue of ethics.

In this situation where there is a hostile rather than an open atmosphere for ethical reflection it is understandable that teachers choose methods which are overall dominated by the idea of stimulating the motivation of the students. It seems to be the best that can be done in the given conditions. Systematic approaches, theoretical foundations and ethical reflection which overcome a subjective judging of concrete behaviour might lead to a more sound understanding of what journal­ism has to be in a ‘democratic society. On the other hand, ethical educa­tion always has to bear in mind the conditions under which individuals are actually acting, a consideration which is rather common among the experts. But the job-orientated character of lots of the courses conceals the danger that a critical reflection of these conditions cannot command a commensurate place within the curriculae,

When students enter jobs they must be prepared for What they find there, but they must also be prepared not to willingly accept circum­stances as they are. Journalists thinking this way might be able to create a job culture which is open to ethical debate and self-regulation. It is the collective process of a profession which leads to ethical standards, not individualistic heroism. But the smallest unit of the profession of jour­nalism is the single journalist. The training of journalists in the United Kingdom has started to consider the notion of responsibility as an inte­gral part of what a journalist has to learn.

APPENDIX 1

The Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice, 1995

The Press Complaints Commission is charged with enforcing the fol­lowing Code of Practice which was framed by the newspaper and peri­odical industry and ratified by the Press Complaints Commission.

All members of the press have a duty to maintain the highest profes­sional and ethical standards. In doing so, they should have regard to the provisions of this Code of Practice and to safeguarding the public’s right to know.

Editors are responsible for the actions of journalists employed by their publications. They should also satisfy themselves as far as possible that material accepted from non-staff members was obtained in accord­ance with this Code.

While recognising that this involves a substantial element of self- restraint by editors and journalists, it is designed to be acceptable in the context of a system of self-regulation. The Code applies in the spirit as well as the letter.

It is the responsibility of editors to cooperate as swiftly as possible in PCC enquiries.

Any publication which is criticised by the PCC under one of the fol­lowing clauses is duty bound to print the adjudication which follows in full and with due prominence.

1.             Accuracy

(i)            Newspapers and pediodicals should take care not to publish inaccur­ate, misleading or distorted material.

(ii)           Whenever it is recognised that a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report has been published; it should be cor­rected promptly and with due prominence.

(iii)         An apology should be published whenever appropriate.

(iv)          A newspaper or periodical should always report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party.

2.             Opportunity to reply

A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies should be given to individ­uals or organisations when reasonably called for.

3.             Comment, conjecture and fact

Newspapers, whilst free to be partisan, should distinguish clearly be­tween comment, conjecture and fact.

4.             Privacy

Intrustions and enquiries into an individual’s private life without his oi­lier consent, including the use of long-lens photography to take pictures of people on private property without their consent, are not generally acceptable and publication can only be justified when in the public in­terest.

Note: Private property is defined as (i) any private residence, together with its garden and outbuildings, but excluding any adjacent fields or parkland and the surrounding parts of the property within the unaided view of passers-by; (ii) hotel bedrooms (but not other areas in a hotel) and (iii) those parts of a hospital or nursing home where patients are treated or accommodated.

5.             Listening devices

Unless justified by public interest, journalists should not obtain or publish material obtained by using clandestine listening devices or by intercepting private telephone conversations.

6.             Hospitals

(i)            Journalists or photographers making enquiries at hospitals or. simi­lar institutions should identify themselves to a responsible execu­tive and obtain permission before entering non-public areas. (ii) The restrictions on intruding into privacy are particularly relevant to enquiries about individuals in hospitals or similar institutions.

7.             Misrepresentation

(i)            journalists should not generally obtain or seek to obtain informa­tion or pictures through misrepresentation or subterfuge.

(ii)           Unless in the public interest, documents or photographs should be removed only with the express consent of the owner.

(iii)         Subterfuge can be justified only in the| public interest and only when material cannot be obtained by any other means.

8.             Harassment

(i)            Journalists should neither obtain nor seek to obtain information or pictures through intimidation or harassment.

(ii)           Unless their enquiries are in the public interest, journalists should not photograph individuals on private property (as defined in Clause 4) without their consent; should not persist in telephoning or questioning individuals after having been asked to desist; should not remain on their property after having been asked to leave and should not follow them.

(iii)         It is the responsibility of editors to ensure that these requirements are carried out.

9.             Payment for articles

Payment or offers of payment for stories, pictures or information should not be made directly or through agents to witnesses or potential wit­nesses in current criminal proceedings or to people engaged in crime or to their associates -which includes family, friends/neighbours and col­leagues - except where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and the payment, is necessary for this to be done.

10: Intrusion into grief or shock

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries should be carried out and, approaches made, with sympathy and discretion.

11.          Innocent relatives and friends

Unless it is contrary to the public’s right to know, the press should generally avoid identifying relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime.

12.          Interviewing or photographing children

(i)            Journalists should not normally interview or photograph children under the age of 16 on subjects involving the personal welfare of the child in the absence of or without the consent of a parent or other adult who is responsible for the children. (ii) Children should  not be approached or photographed  while at school without the permission of the school authorities.

13.          Children in sex cases

The press should not, even where the law does not prohibit it, identify children under the age of 16 who are involved in cases con­cerning sexual offences, whether as victims or as witnesses or de­fendants.

In any press report of a case involving a sexual offence against a child:

(i)            the adult should be identified

(ii)           the term ‘incest’ where applicable should not be used

(in)   the offence should be described as ‘serious offences against

young children’ or similar appropriate wording (iv)   the child should not be identified

(v)           care should be taken that nothing in the report implies the re­lationship between the accused and the child.

14.          Victims of crime

The press should not identify victims of sexual assault or publish material likely to contribute to such identification unless, by law, they are free to do so.

15.          Discrimination

(i)            The press should avoid prejudicial or perjorative reference to a per-son’s race, colour, religion, sex or sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or handicap.

(ii)           It should avoid publishing details of a person’s race, colour, reli­gion, sex or sexual orientation unless these are directly relevant to the story.

16.          Financial journalism

(i)            Even when the law does not prohibit it, journalists should not use for their own profit financial information they receive in advance of its general publication, nor should they pass such information to others.

(ii)           They should not write about shares or securities in whose performance they know that they or their families have a significant financial interest without disclosing the interest to the editor or financial editor. (iii) They should not buy or sell, either directly or through nominees or agents, shares or securities about which they have written recently or about which they intend to write in the near future.

17.          Confidential sources

Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of in­formation.

18.          The public interest

Clauses 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9 create exceptions which may be covered by invoking the public interest. For the purpose of this code that is more easily defined as:

(i)            detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour (ii) protecting public health and safety

(iii)         preventing the public from being misled by some statement or ac­tion of an individual or organisation.

In any cases raising issues beyond these three definitions the Press Complaints Commission will require a full explanation by the editor of the publication involved, seeking to demonstrate how the public interest was served.

Source: Press Standards Board of Finance.

APPENDIX 2

National Union of Journalists’ Code of Conduct

A journalist has a duty to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards.

A journalist shall at all times defend the principle of the freedom of the press and other media in relation to the collection of infor­mation and the expression of comment and criticism. He/she shall strive to eliminate distortion, news suppression and censorship.

A journalist shall strive to ensure that the information he/she dis­seminates is fair and accurate, avoid the expression of comment and conjecture as established fact and falsification by distortion, selec­tion or misrepresentation.

A journalist shall rectify promptly any harmful inaccuracies, ensure that correction and apologies receive due prominence and afford the right of reply to persons criticized when the issue is of sufficient importance.

A journalist shall obtain information, photographs and illustrations only by straightforward means. The use of other means can be justi­fied only by over-riding consideration of the public interest. The journalist is entitled to exercise a personal conscientious objection to the use of such means.

6.             Subject to justification by over-riding considerations of the public interest, a journalist shall do nothing which entails intrusion into private grief and distress. •

7                     A journalist shall protect confidential sources of information.

8                      A journalist shall not accept bribes nor shall he/she allow other inducements to influence the performance of his/her professionalduties.

9                       A journalist shall not lend himself/herself to the distortion or sup­pression of the truth because of advertising or other considerations. 10  

10                 A journalist shall neither originate nor process material which en­courages discrimination on grounds of race, colour, creed, gender or sexual orientation.

11                  A journalist shall not take private advantage of information gained in the course of his/her duties, before the information is public knowledge.

Source: National Union of Journalists.

INDEPENDENT ACTIVITY

1.      Give examples of other European press codes.

2.      Do we need ethics in journalism?

3.      Express your own opinion regarding teaching ethics in schools of journalism. Do you consider it profitable?

FALSE INFORMATION AND THE PRESS

Raymond Snoddy is a former journalist for The Independent, The Times, Financial Times, Channel 4, BBC News 24, Sky News.

In the article ‘It’s a queer old world, isn’t it?’ False information and the press, he makes an analysis of the possible ways of creating public opinion on a certain topic. False information is not obligatory a result of deception and misleading but of the lack of professionalism. These causes could be present elsewhere as well.

‘It’s a queer old world, isn’t it?’ False information and the press

ENORMOUS personal suffering can be caused by individual newspaper stories that are inaccurate or that intrude into people’s privacy for no good reason. A few examples pass into the collective memory of the country, either because of the fame of those involved, the outrageousness of the behaviour alleged or the size of the libel damages eventually awarded. Such scandal stories damage the reputation of the press and perhaps play some part in coarsening the tone of public discourse, but in most cases they amount to little more than marks in the sand and are swept away by each day’s new tide of print.

It is much more serious when significant sections of the press consistently misjudge an important social issue and either fail to provide enough reliable information for informed judgement or actively mislead their readers. .

As Harold Evans has argued, the press is better at handling single events than it is at handling gradual social processes which have no obvious beginning or end. With a small number of honourable exceptions, such as the Observer, few newspapers showed sustained concern for the environment until the problem became so obvious and pressing that there was seen to be commercial and circulation advantage in the issue. Then newspapers began sprouting environmental correspondents and developed an instan­taneous interest in green politics.

It has proved more difficult for some sections of the press to come to terms with the phenomenon of AIDS - Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome - and this may have had dangerous consequences for their readers. By any standards, AIDS is one of the major stories of both the 1980s and the 1990S. Around the world many thousands have already died, and as yet there is no cure once the ‘full-blown’ disease develops.

The HIV virus, which most scientists believe causes AIDS, can be trans­mitted by the exchange of bodily fluids - semen, vaginal fluid or blood. It can be passed on during sex, during transfusions of infected blood, when sharing needles to inject drugs and when se11len from an infected man is used in the artificial insemination of a woman - although screening now prevents that happening. The most frightening aspect of the virus is the fact that someone can be HIV -positive for as long as eight years with no symptoms, before the onset of AIDS. Yet during that time he or she is capable of transmitting the virus to others.

All of this basic information and more is readily available to anyone who asks. There is even a leaflet HIV C5 AIDS - A Guide For Journalists produced by the Health Education Authority and the National Union of Journalists. Yet, to their lasting disgrace, many popular newspapers have consistently reported AIDS as a ‘gay plague’ and therefore a problem which has little to do with the community as a whole.

For years, Terry Sanderson has written a ‘Media Watch’ column for Gay Times. In a booklet on how Fleet Street treats gay issues, he described how AIDS had many of the essential elements of a tabloid story: ‘a tragic fatal disease which is, for good measure, sexually transmitted; overtones of pseudo-religious morality; “innocent” victims as well as a culpable villain; and of course homosexuality. How the papers revelled in it. Thousands of column inches, hundred of lurid headlines and, day after day, an almost vindictive desire to avoid the truth.’”

An example was the enthusiastic coverage of the death from AIDS of film star Rock Hudson in 1985. Many papers went into detail about the star’s previously unrealized homosexuality, but the Daily Star went one stage further with ‘Terror in Tinseltown’, which played up tlle fear of tlle actresses who had been involved in film love scenes with Rock Hudson, even though there was no likelihood of AIDS being transmitted during such scenes. For its part, the Sun contributed a story quoting an American psychologist Paul Cameron as saying that all homosexuals should be exter­minated to stop the spread of AIDS. It was time to stop pussy-footing around, he argued.

In his booklet, Terry Sanderson pleaded that, rather than the meting out of blame or persecution, the difficult issues involved needed honest dis­cussion. ‘No other disease has been blamed on an identifiable minority like this; no other disease is given a morality,’ he argued.

The facts are on Sanderson’s side. Although so far most cases of HIV

infection and of AIDS in the UK have involved gay and bisexual men and injecting drug-users, that situation is changing. Elsewhere in the world the spread of the virus has been mainly through heterosexual sex. In Africa, where the first cases of the disease were identified in the mid-I970S, the numbers of men and women afflicted are roughly even.

Despite the grim history of press coverage of the issue, the articles that appeared within two days of each other in December 1990 were still remarkable: One was a leading article in the Daily Star; the other was a column in the Sun. Together, these pieces could have been read by upwards of 14 million people. The articles were written to complain about World AIDS Day and the fact that ‘the mawkish minority’ had dared to mark the  occasion with television documentaries on the disease. While the words in the Star and the Sun were very slightly different, their theme was depress­ingly familiar - that AIDS is an affliction of ‘promiscuous shirtlifters’ and “ male entertainers, and only sanctimonious ‘twerps’ could ever imagine it would affect ordinary decent folk.

Under the headline ‘AIDS isn’t so Special’, the Star was prepared to concede that AIDS is a horrible killer illness but then so too are cancer, heart diseases, multiple sclerosis and a host of others, and these affect a lot more people. Sufferers from such menaces and their loved ones, the paper argued, must be wondering why AIDS is singled out for such lavish attention. ‘Is it because AIDS has ravaged the high-profile world of show

business, killing many male entertainers? Could it be that the mortal terror

of those with “sophisticated” lifestyles is being used to instil needless fear in ordinary folk? It’s a queer old world, isn’t it?’ said the Star profoundly.

Over in the Sun, the newspaper’s television critic, Garry Bushell, was warning of the terrible epidemic threatening to engulf Britain - the plague of AIDS documentaries. ‘Shirtlifters’ might be dropping like ninepins, but where was the evidence that the disease would blitz normal, decent people? ‘How long before the TV trendies realize no one believes the hysteria?

People know who AIDS affects, and how,’ Bushell argued, with a tone of righteous certainty.

The problem is that, in a rather frightening sense, Garry Bushell is right.

“ A very large number of people do indeed appear to ‘know’ - or at least believe they know - that AIDS doesn’t pose any serious threat to them. A Gallup survey to mark the World AIDS Day that the Star and Sun took such exception to found an alarming level of complacency about the disease, especially among women in the UK. Less than one in three people in the UK believes AIDS is a serious risk to British women, even though, in heterosexual intercourse, the probability of a woman contracting HIV from an infected man is much greater than that of a man contracting HIV from an infected woman.

The statistics do little to support the confidence of papers like the Sun that AIDS is a just a problem faced by -homosexuals and others with ‘sophisticated’ lifestyles. In New York, AIDS is now the largest cause of death for those under thirty - of both sexes. And, according to the World Health Organization, 6 million people worldwide, including 2 million women, now have the HIV virus which usually leads to AIDS. By the end of 1990, 179 women in Britain were suffering from AIDS, an increase of 72 per cent in twelve months. According to the Department of Health, heterosexual intercourse was by far the fastest growing route by which women were being infected. Even more alarmingly, by the beginning of 1991 the number of heterosexual cases being seen at London clinics already equalled that of gay men four years earlier. A study published in the Lancet in June 1991 showed that one in 500 pregnant women in London was infected with the virus - four times the proportion in 1988.

By classifying AIDS as a ‘gay plague’, albeit one that can also affect intravenous drug-users and haemophiliacs, papers such as the Sun and the Star are at the very least confusing their readers and lulling them into a false sense of security. The coverage represents a dramatic failure by some editors and columnists to come to terms with one of the most significant and tragic stories of the final decades of the twentieth century. The danger­ous mixture of prejudice and ignorance displayed in their pages may actually have cost some readers their lives.

In 1988 the Health Education Authority was mocked when it launched an anti-AIDS campaign aimed at heterosexuals. The Daily Express accused the HEA of spreading a ‘false message of AIDS’, while the Mail thought that a campaign directed at heterosexuals was ‘a lie, a waste of funds and energy and a cruel diversion’. Later that year the Daily Star called for the creation of ‘leper-like colonies’ for AIDS sufferers, because ‘the human race is under threat from promiscuous homosexuals’, the spawning-ground for the disease, according to the Star.

The late George Gale, the Mail’s ‘voice of common sense’, had forthright views on the government spending money on television advertising to per­suade young adults to use condoms to prevent the transmission of the HIV virus.

‘The best way to avoid AIDS is to refuse to permit anal intercourse, with or without condoms. The message to be learned - that the Department of Health should now be urgently propagating - is that active homosexuals are potential murderers and that the act of buggery kills.’

Not all newspapers are equally ill-informed in their AIDS coverage. Margaret Jay, the former Panorama journalist who was director of the National AIDS Trust, the coordinating body for voluntary AIDS organi2a­tions, has found a clear distinction between the popular press and the broadsheets in the reporting of AIDS. The broadsheets have understood the seriousness of the issue and have on the whole been helpful, she says. The Daily Mail and the Daily Express were a little slower off the mark, but they got there - particularly when AIDS became a royal concern and the Princess of Wales began identifying herself in public with AIDS victims. ‘I don’t think it has got through to Today, the Star or the Sun. Probably the Star and the Sun are the worst,’ Ms Jay believes. On this issue, at least in recent years, the Daily Mirror tended to take its lead on AIDS from its publisher, the late Robert Maxwell, who decided that such a major issue needed his personal intervention. He didn’t quite manage to raise the [,50 million he once hoped to find in order to tackle the disease, but he did personally donate [,1.5 million.

The Sun has produced the most outrageous and irresponsible headline ever to be written on top of a story about AIDS: ‘Straight Sex Cannot Give You AIDS - Official.’ This appeared above a story quoting the Irish peer Lord Kilbracken as saying that the chances of getting AIDS from heterosexual sex were ‘statistically invisible’. The story was based on Depart­ment of Health statistics showing that only a small number of heterosexuals had so far contracted full-blown AIDS as opposed to the HIV virus. An editorial trumpeted that people could forget the idea that ordinary heterosex­ual people could get AIDS - they couldn’t. So the Sun had been right all along and everyone else had been part of a vast conspiracy to delude the public. ‘The risk of catching AIDS if you are heterosexual is “statistically invisible”. In other words “impossible”. So now we know - anything else is just homosexual propaganda. And should be treated accordingly,’ the Sun said.

Unfortunately that was not an isolated aberration. The next day the paper followed through with a piece by Dr Vernon Coleman, the paper’s doctor, arguing, under the headline ‘AIDS - The Hoax of the Century,’ that the truth was simple: AIDS had never been a major threat to heterosexuals.

This was all too much for Lord Kilbracken, who was given space in the paper a week later to explain that he had never said you couldn’t get AIDS from heterosexual sex.

The paper was heavily censured by the Press Council for a misleading report that seriously misquoted Lord Kilbracken and a headline that was a gross distortion of the statistical information supplied by the Department of Health. ‘. . . the Sun dealt with the refutation of its article and editorial in an entirely dismissive manner and the paper has never withdrawn from its declared untruth. The paper has persisted in its irresponsible declaration that AIDS cannot be contracted heterosexually,’. said the Council. It called on the Sun to publish an appropriate correction and to apologize to its readers.

The Sun carried the Press Council adjudication at the bottom of page 28. At the end came the following apology: ‘The Sun was wrong to state that it was impossible to catch AIDS from heterosexual sex. We apologize.’ But more disgraceful than the brevity and stiff formality of this ‘apology’ was the fact that the paper reproduced some of its original material claiming to show that heterosexuals, with few exceptions, didn’t get AIDS.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that senior journalists at the Sun still hadn’t grasped certain key points - that there is an important difference between those who are HIV -positive and those who have AIDS; that in most cases one turns into the other after a particularly dangerous time-lag; and that the HIV virus, unusual though it is, is not targeted specifically against homosexuals, although anal intercourse may increase the risk.

The paper just wouldn’t let go of the issue. When Garry Bushell claimed in his ‘Soapbox’ column that there was no heterosexual AIDS explosion and there never would be, Professor Michael Adler, professor of genito­urinary medicine at Middlesex Hospital; tried to explain in the paper why Bushell was wrong. In an admirably direct article, Professor Adler told how one of his patients, a 22-year-old secretary with one previous boyfriend, had become HIV -positive after a one-night stand; and how another patient, a 45-year-old woman with grown-up children, had become infected after intercourse with her bisexual husband. Studies from all over the world, Professor Adler insisted, showed that most men and women with AIDS were infected by straightforward, normal sex. ‘The idea that AIDS is a gay plague is a myth created by people who don’t want to believe that they are at risk. And it threatens to destroy us unless our thinking changes drasti­cally,’ he argued.

Was the Sun at last mending its ways? Was this, at last, a slightly more practical apology for all the dangerous nonsense the paper had written on the subject over the years? Not quite. Professor Adler had made a tactical error: one of his examples involved a bisexual, and that of course meant the marriage was not normal. In an editorial that challenged Professor Adler’s view, the paper did, however, concede that people now accept that

AIDS is no longer exclusively a disease of homosexuals, and that.heterosexuals would be crazy not to take precautions. ‘Yet why do some medical authorities deny that AIDS is predominantly a homosexual disease? Conceal­ing the truth merely increases the danger,’ argued the Sun - revealing the depths of its continuing confusion.

Margaret Jay grants that AIDS is a difficult issue for newspapers to cover. ‘I equate the difficulty of covering AIDS properly with the difficulty of covering the Iran-Iraq war or Northern Ireland properly. The thing goes on and on and there is no simple solution.’ Many of the victims prefer anonymity, so there is also a scarcity of the sympathetic human-interest stories that might help to dispel prejudice.

By raising initial awareness that there was a life-threatening new disease on the way, the press did play an important role in the early part of the campaign against AIDS - the government, rather belatedly, realized that there was a problem and began to spend large sums of money on highly symbolic, threatening and some thought rather counter-productive adver­tisements featuring icebergs and tombstones. But all that attention raised expectations of doom that could not be matched by the slow-moving disease. The inevitable happened - some journalists started denouncing AIDS as a hoax on the public.

Apart from a fair degree of homophobia, Margaret Jay believes some journalists have been operating their own personal denial syndrome on AIDS. ‘A lot of journalists, if they really searched their hearts and looked into their own lives, would have reasons to be worried about this whole thing.’ She hopes that more journalists will now play their part in taking the battle against AIDS’ forward to the next stage - from awareness to actually changing behaviour. The director of the National AIDS Trust says, ‘I don’t think it’s the Black Death, but I seriously think it’s a major problem.’

Whatever the true scale of the threat posed by the disease, it is certainly a problem that deserves more thoughtful coverage than articles about ‘shirt­lifters’. Perhaps, as a first step in improving the flow of information on AIDS to the public, the Health Minister should scoop up a specialist on the disease and see the editors of errant newspapers one at a time for a concentrated briefing; then at least they could no longer have the excuse of ignorance on the subject.

A slow-moving story like AIDS may be difficult to cover, but the ‘explosion of evil’ that broke out in Strangeways Prison Manchester on 1April 1990 presented difficulties of a more pressing kind. It was immediately apparent that this was the most violent revolt in the history of the British penal system, but journalists were unable to get definitive information on what was happening inside the prison as part of-it was in the hands of inmates.

However, the headlines the next day could not have been more emphatic. The riot that broke out in the chapel during Sunday morning service at Strangeways had effectively left a major prison in the hands of more than 1,000 rioting inmates, with destruction on an unprecedented scale. But most serious of all, the press reported, the violence had turned in on itself and was directed not only at the authorities and the prison staff but also at the Rule-43 prisoners - the sex offenders, the ‘nonces’ of prison slang, the lowest form of prison life.

The numbers of dead, and the certainty with which the death toll was advanced, varied slightly from newspaper to newspaper. The Daily Mirror headline said’ 11 Die in Jail Riot’. The London Evening Standard plumped for twenty,’ but showed some caution by saying the men were ‘feared’ dead.

As the siege and the coverage continued, the death toll rose even higher, and on 3 April the Sun reached the peak with a front-page ‘exclusive’ that more than thirty prisoners might have been killed, “although the story was attributed to jail warders and the ‘30’ Die’ headline had single quotation marks around it - the usual newspaper headline device for separating fact from claim and counter-claim.

The Daily Mirror also had quotation marks in the headline of its main front-page story - ‘Prison Mob “Hang Cop”’. The cop involved was a convicted rapist, Sergeant Dennis Davies, and the truth was that he had not been hanged: he was actually serving his sentence safely in Armley Prison in Leeds. The Mirror apologized properly the next day.

The numbers of deaths being claimed were themselves horrendous. More horrendous still were the manner of those deaths, according to accounts by prisoners, prison officers and staff from the emergency services. Prisoners were hanged following kangaroo courts, or were castrated by fellow inmates. Others were thrown from the landings into the central well of the prison and were impaled on furniture. There were reports of throats being slit, forced injections of cocktails of drugs stolen from the prison pharmacy and batterings by iron bars, and even more grotesque stories of bodies being dismembered and disposed of down the drainage system. There were even claims of traces of blood and flesh being found on an industrial mincer in the prison kitchens.

Nothing remotely like this had happened before in the British prison system. When considered in conjunction with the poll-tax riots a month earlier, there was enough material here to launch numerous features on ‘Violent Britain’.

Yet when the last prisoners gave themselves up, twenty-five days after the siege began, it was finally proved that the definitive newspaper stories had all been wrong. There were no bodies in the prison. No one had been hanged, castrated or impaled, although two people had died during the affair - a prisoner who had been beaten and a prison officer with a heart condition who had died in hospital some days after leaving the prison.

Does the Strangeways affair qualify as the worst example in recent years of sensationalism run riot, journalistic standards gone mad?

‘I don’t think any of us distinguished ourselves mightily on the Strange­ways prison riot,’ Max Hastings, editor of the Daily Telegraph, admits. He accuses the tabloids of seizing on the worst reports and rumours in an unquestioning way because they didn’t want to question them. ‘Most of us try to put a reasonably sensible contextual spin on a set of wild rumours, but everyone printed the most gruesome, the most appalling accounts, and because they came from warders or men in uniform they were believed,’ he added.

Twelve days after the riot broke out, and before the siege was over, his paper published a powerful leading article wondering what the public made of such headlines as ‘A Kangaroo Court. . . Then 20 Executed’, which by then were already looking hopelessly exaggerated if not yet definitively proved to be untrue. A‘historic’ editors’ code of conduct, designed to curb press excesses, had been signed only five months earlier. What did such reporting say about that?

‘Today, if anything, standards are lower than before,’ the Daily Telegraph wrote. ‘Offensive bullying of the Royal Family has plumbed new depths. Blatant exaggerations on sensitive public issues are published and stand uncorrected. Privacy is invaded as freely as ever.’ The Telegraph called on the only people with the power to act - the newspaper proprietors - to do so; otherwise, said the paper, lapsing into prison slang, ‘we shall all go down’, freedom of expression would be diminished and in the long run the public would be the losers.

It was a fine, ringing declaration - and of course there is no arguing against the case that the newspapers collectively, along with most broad­casters, simply got Strangeways wrong. Undoubtedly, enormous heartache and suffering was caused. In the chaos in the prison system that followed the riot, with hundreds of prisoners being dispersed to prisons all over the country and therefore temporarily unaccounted for, many parents of Rule-43 prisoners must have spent sleepless nights wondering whether their sons had been the victims of the kangaroo courts.

Yet Strangeways is not quite the unambiguous newspaper scandal it appears at first sight to be. It is also an eloquent testimony to the great difficulty reporters have in trying to piece together events if they cannot physically get to the main players involved - in this case, the prisoners ­and when the official source of information - in this case, the Home Office - is, if not wilfully secretive, at the very least ‘reticent to a fault. The Home Office’s reluctance to go beyond neither confirming nor denying the dramatic stories being provided by others contributed significantly to the confusion.

The full complexity of what happened appeared in Press at the Prison Gates, the last inquiry into complaints against newspapers held by the Press

Council before it was disbanded. The Council, never noted for its sense of humour, at least managed a little ganows humour on this occasion, opening with a verse from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

The Governor was strong upon/ The Regulations Act:

The Doctor said that Death was but/ A scientific fact:

And twice a day the Chaplain called,/ And left a little tract.

Reporters told the inquiry of enormous efforts made to check the pervasive and repeated stories of death and mutilation in the face of a wan of silence from official sources.

William Newman, managing director of the Sun, insisted that the paper’s reporting had been conducted in the most thorough and professional manner possible. He stressed that there had been no invention, no duplicity, no intention to mislead. ‘The fact is that we believed what we had been told from a multiplicity of sources and were so confident that we were being told the truth that we presented the deaths as facts,’ he said.

An insight into how errors developed was provided by the account offered by a Sun journalist - ‘Reporter A’. He described how a well-known, authori­tative and senior member of the emergency services, who had asked not to be identified, said there were unconfirmed reports of twelve dead. Because the Sun reporters were worried at the lack of official confirmation, they called the source again. This time he said that he had heard the prison governor, Brendan O’Friel, who was later to describe..the riot as ‘an

explosion of evil’, talk of three confirmed deaths and up to twelve feared dead. ‘We were right,’ said Reporter A. ‘Twelve feared dead. The Home Secretary, the Prison Officers Association and the prison governor were still saying, weeks later, that they could not rule out fatalities. The story filed on 1 April and published on 2 April was correct.’ He added,: I can’t answer for the headline ‘Twelve Dead in Jail’. But without question, I would do the same again with the copy, in the same circumstances. The story was correct at the time and the situation was unique - especially and disas­trously in the inefficient naivety and perhaps inexperience of so-called press officers who were completely unprepared and did not have a contingency plan to deal with media inquiries.

Michael Unger, editor of the Manchester Evening News, a regional evening paper published a few hundreds yards from Strangeways, also echoed the Sun’s and many other papers’ complaints about how the Home Office. handled the affair, and he rejected allegations of exaggeration and sensation­alism.

The Manchester Evening News had probably the best local contacts of any of the papers with reporters outside Strangeways, and the difficulties papers faced can best be illustrated by the front pages of its different editions on 2 April. In the first edition, the main MEN headline said, ‘20 Dead’. By the second edition, a question mark. had been added - ‘20 Dead?’ There was further caution in later editions, when the headline changed to ‘Mayhem’ and any reference to specific numbers of dead was dropped. Under a dramatic picture of the prison rooftop protest, there was another subheading, but in later editions part of this was put in quotes - ‘Sex offenders “castrated after drug-crazed inmates rampage”.’ As evidence that he did make considerable efforts to be fair and balanced, the paper’s editor can point to the progressive caution displayed throughout the day.

To a very considerable degree, journalists were merely picking up and transmitting to a wider audience the genuine fears, guesses and beliefs of many of those professionally involved in the Strangeways siege: prison officers and their union representatives, police and ambulance workers and prisoners themselves, The Chairman of the Manchester Prison Officers’ Association, Ivor Serle, was one of the few officials involved who was willing to go on the record, and he persistently spoke of a ‘gut feeling’ that bodies would be found inside the prison. His impressions seemed to be confirmed when on the second day the authorities delivered twenty body bags to the prison.

Perhaps the most compelling and respectable evidence of all came from solicitors in open court representing Strangew.ays prisoners who had been moved to other prisons. One was Robert Vining, who told Oldham magis­trates that his client, a Strangeways inmate, had spoken of seeing three bodies hanging from balconies in the prison’s central block, including that of a 17-year-old he knew. Other solicitors told similar stories, and some refused to believe until the very end that there were no bodies in the prison.

Ian Ferguson, a Church Army captain, told Lord Justice Woolf’s inquiry into the riot that many prisoners had told him of men being hanged and beaten to death.

How could so many people have been so comprehensively wrong about the events in Strangeways? Was there an outbreak of mass hysteria in the

immediate aftermath of the riot?        ,

Some possible explanations emerged later. It seems there may’indeed have been ‘bodies’ littering the prison on I April. A number of resuscitation dummies were strung up inside the prison and could have been mistaken

for bodies ‘at a distance. Some prisoners may have overdosed on drugs stolen from the prison pharmacy and been lying unconscious for a time, and a number of Rule-43 prisoners may have, feigned death to try to avoid the all-too-real threat of violence in the prison. And, some suggested, prisoners may have deliberately spread false stories of deaths to increase the sense of chaos within the prison system.         .

There are many factors which help to explain how journalists, and quite a lot of others, misread events. But the papers are not totally guiltless: there are several developments which might have suggested greater caution, despite the Home Office’s apparent unwillingness or inability to confirm deaths inside the prison.

On the morning after the riot, Philip Randall, consultant in accident and emergency medicine at North Manchester General Hospital, gave a press conference in which he stated categorically that he had not admitted any prisoners with injuries from attempted hanging, castration or other muti­lation. Only the broadsheet papers reported Mr Randall’s comments. He later told the Press Council that he was surprised and distressed that stories reporting such injuries continued to appear. ‘Such treatment of authentic information serves to give credence to a public view that some newspapers will reject, deliberately or subconsciously, any report that might spoil a good or sensational story,’ the Press Council said.

As early as the second day of the siege, the prisoners on the prison roof held up a sheet with the words ‘No Bodies’ scrawled on it. Although it is easy to see why they were not considered the most reliable of sources, the press coverage of Strangeways would have been rather more accurate if the papers had paid a little more attention to primary sources who were at least in a position to know.

In the end~ after every allowance has been made for the difficulties in covering the riot and siege, the account that the public was offered of events in Strangeways prison cannot be justified. As the Press Council recommended, when covering such situations newspapers should pay par­ticular attention to the need to distinguish hard fact from speculation and conjecture; and headlines, however dramatic editors would like them to be, must be soundly based on facts and not overstate the text below.

INDEPENDENT ACTIVITY

Comment the above article. (1 page)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1.      Barbara Thomas, Teaching ethics to journalists in the United Kingdom, Chapter 10 in Sex, Lies and Democracy, The Press and the Public, ed. Hugh Stephenson and Michael Bromley, Longaman, 1998

2.      Raymond Snoddy, The Good, the Bad and the Unacceptable, Faber, London, 1993

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