Friday 15 December 2017

freedom-of-the-press-1-resized

The obligations of objective journalism

This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today 

 

Anyone who works in the media is often the recipient of information from third parties who want to remain anonymous and who ask you to keep their identity confidential which, ethically, a journalist is obliged to do. The biggest tip-offs in the history of journalism have always come about through such methods and members of the press have even been known to go to jail rather than reveal their sources.

However, it is also within a journalist’s remit to double check the veracity of such information and have it confirmed by two separate sources. Newspapers in particular (or at least, those worth their salt anyway) will refuse to publish a story unless it has been run through this rigorous process. The journalist is accountable for what he/she writes but carrying the can will be the editor who approves the story and gives it the go-ahead for publication (which is why in libel suits, it is the editor of the paper who is sued because he/she is legally responsible to ensure that what is printed is factually correct. Many a story has been withheld from being published by editors for just this reason). The same holds true for any news organization, including the broadcasting media and news portals, before breaking any major story. “Someone told me” just does not cut it as a defence, no matter how plausible a story may be, because it has to be backed by actual documented proof or someone willing to go on the record. Otherwise we can all go around publishing every single shred of gossip or rumour which is whispered in our ears or sent to us in a private chat.

The reason for this is obvious: When people pass on information or want you to write about a particular issue, you have to be careful that they are not doing so simply to exact revenge or because they have an axe to grind and are just using you to do their dirty work for them. Carried out properly, investigative journalism is an essential part of democracy which is why it is known as the Fourth Estate, and is crucial in acting as a watchdog on those in Government and positions of power. It goes without saying that when done in the proper way, purely to serve the public’s right to know and without any other ulterior motive, it is one of the very basic tenets of a democratic society.

But, in the wrong hands, certain information is easily manipulated and malleable; it can be used selectively and yes, even dangerously, to steer public opinion in a way which is little more than partisan spin, to doctor the truth by planting unsubstantiated insinuations in what amounts to nothing more than a game of Chinese whispers. Some of it may have a grain of truth, other bits are highly exaggerated for effect, and still other parts can often be downright lies, but when everything is being churned out from under the same umbrella, it becomes increasingly difficult to sift the wheat from the chaff.

More worryingly, when the power which comes with the pen (which, as the saying goes, is mightier than the sword) is wielded by those who cannot remain dispassionate and detached enough to see the whole, bigger picture, than that in itself is an undemocratic tool. Objectivity is essential, otherwise one’s position as a journalist (whichever medium one uses) becomes extremely suspect. Gatekeeping, selective reporting, suppressing one story because it doesn’t suit one’s partisan agenda while amplifying another because it does – none of these are conducive to credibility or earning the public’s trust or even support. And while breaking stories involving political corruption or unethical behaviour are to be applauded, the clapping does tend to slow down when the same kind of obsessive zeal to dig up the “truth” is not consistently shown towards anyone caught with their pants (figuratively or literally) down, but only when it concerns a specific group of people.

We are living at a time when the Internet has potentially made anyone a publisher which may give the illusion that the usual duties, obligations and ethical constraints which cover journalism don’t apply. But in reality, they do, perhaps now more than ever. Even what you write on Facebook is liable to be used in a defamation lawsuit as we have seen in the past. Online journalism (including the publishing of opinion pieces) may appear much more ‘loose’ and relaxed but the basic principles remain the same. If you cannot back up what you are saying with concrete proof and solid sources, then you should err on the side of caution and not write it at all.

After all, there are various ways to bully people into silence. Some use garnishee orders, others may use fear and intimidation tactics through the stories they choose to publish and whom they may wish to target.

Speaking of the garnishee order…

When it comes to legal disputes, freezing someone’s assets is probably the most “effective” weapon one can use because it hits people where it hurts the most: their pockets. It is also one of the scariest because it is open to abuse. Ask anyone who has endured this ordeal (because it has been used in the past, not only on journalists but on ordinary citizens in court cases where there is a fear that a debt won’t be paid, or simply as an act of vindictiveness.)

So if we agree that the garnishee order (or precautionary warrant) which is being used against members of the press in libel suits amounts to an attempt to gag them, then logic tells me that it should be removed. (And while they are at it, even the way the garnishee order can be abused in other civil disputes should be looked into). But surely there is no need to wait until one is in Government to do it, as Simon Busuttil has announced, as it can be done by presenting a private member’s Bill in the same way that the divorce Bill was brought before Parliament for discussion*.

In fact, in an announcement on Thursday, the new party, Partit Demokratitku said it intends to do just that. There definitely is no better time like the present now that the topic is on everyone’s lips.

 

UPDATE: *After this was published Dr Busuttil announced that a private member’s Bill would be presented in Parliament by the Opposition. 

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