The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

  • PROFESSOR CHRISTOPHER BRUCE MEGONE (sworn).

  • Please take a seat. First of all, your full name?

  • Thank you. You've kindly provided us with a witness statement, which runs to 14 pages, I think. Can I ask you, please, to confirm the truth of that statement?

  • You are professor of interdisciplinary applied ethics at the University of Leeds?

  • Could you tell us at least what your main research and philosophical interests are?

  • So my more theoretical interests are in Plato and Aristotle's moral and political philosophy, and neo-Aristotelian views of moral psychology -- that's about rationality, desire and value -- and then I write on medical ethics and business ethics principally.

  • So interdisciplinary applied ethics -- between which disciplines are we looking at?

  • So in my teaching, particularly, I work with colleagues in engineering, biosciences, medicine, dentistry, so right -- a whole range of areas.

  • Thank you. The public interest, first of all, in a free press -- in other words, a press free from censorship, I suppose. How do you go about analysing that statement?

  • So in line with what I said in the witness statement, I think that public interest in a free press is primarily an interest in a press which serves two particular functions equivalent to the common good: one, the function of informing -- providing information for the public about a range of issues for them to make choices about their lives and the kind of community that they live in -- and secondly, the function of holding to account those in positions of office, whether it be political or commercial or cultural, who serve the public.

    So provision of information, and through that provision of information, also holding people to account.

  • So in order to serve those public interests, as you say, the press will need to carry out its work with accuracy and rigour; is that right?

  • To what extent should the society as a whole, or a regulator within it, be able or free to impinge on the freedoms of the press, as you describe them?

  • So I think that, as you say, there's a whole range of things that in order to fulfil those functions properly, the press needs to adhere to. You've mentioned impartiality, recognising its own potential conflicts of interest, avoidance of bias, truthfulness, making good judgments about what's important to bring to the attention of the public and what isn't, amongst a whole range of stories that may prevail on a daily basis, and then a number of constraints that they may have to adhere to which might be viewed as other parts of the public interest or the rights of individuals concerning matters of privacy, confidentiality and the like, which, even though there's a public interest in bringing information to people, may constrain that information being brought for -- yeah, and those are rights of individuals and they also pertain to things like security, judicial process and so on, a number of other factors, which could be impinged if certain information is brought out at inappropriate times and so on.

  • You mentioned impartiality, Professor Megone. Under the code, the press is free to be partisan, presumably because society has made a judgment that the "rights of the press" are more important in terms of being able to be partisan than other rights in being impartial. How do you see that working?

  • Yes. I suppose the press is -- I've talked about it presenting information. I suppose the press both presents information and presents opinion, and in the presentation of opinion, we accept that at least certain parts of the press are entitled to partiality. There's obviously some part of the media or press which is subject to constraints where they must be more impartial, present two sides of the coin on every case. So when it comes to opinion, we allow for partiality but then it's important for those organisations to present both opinion and facts, that they make clear when they're doing which. So you read the news sections and you expect those not to be clouded by partiality.

  • But that's not entirely straightforward, is it? Because I could present a set of facts which are facts but which I have chosen very carefully to reflect an opinion which may not entirely be in any sense balanced.

  • No, absolutely. I think that's -- I think it's particularly in areas -- I was thinking about this beforehand. For example, in the reporting of this Inquiry, media organisations themselves have interest because they're reporting about other media organisations and they may choose to select facts which present their competitors in a certain light. That could be seen as the interests of their own organisation colouring how they're presenting the facts. It may be seen as the political outlook of the organisation -- so commercial interests, for the first, political outlook by the second -- and I think that's where it's important, where you're attempting to present the news and give your readership information about what's going on, that the opinion side of the newspaper shouldn't intervene.

  • Yes, well, I understand. As I say though, the problem is that there isn't a bright line between fact and comment.

  • No, no, no. I mean, I accept that, that there's grey areas in this. I'm afraid ethics is full of grey areas.

  • But I still think nonetheless you can -- you know which bit of the newspaper is the comment section and you know which bit is the --

  • Although the code actually creates its own bright line, the requirement to distinguish.

  • You make it clear that freedom of the press is not the same as freedom of expression, although there may be points of contact between them yes.

  • Can I ask you to develop the point that freedom of the press can, in certain circumstances, inhibit freedom of expression?

  • Well, I was thinking there particularly about the opinion side of things, actually, so the extent to which -- I mean, even the heavyweight newspapers now have a lot more opinion columns than they used to. But even though you're presenting a number of opinions in the newspaper, there's only a small number of people who get to write for those newspapers and therefore if the main -- and there are a small number of newspapers. Now, if those newspapers' ownership is restricted, the way in which freedom of expression might be inhibited is that some people might not actually have access to this. So although opinions are being presented, there are certain types of opinion which are systematically excluded, either because of the ownership structure of the press or the ownership structures and the editorial structures taken together.

    So you need a diversity in the press as well as freedom in order to maintain genuine variety of expression or to ensure that the whole range of opinions is reflected.

  • But is the issue this: that if the press isn't sufficiently plural, not sufficiently diverse, it means that certain opinions will not be expressed?

  • But the mere fact that the press expresses opinion, can that crowd out other opinions or is there, in effect, an infinite number of opinions? We're not talking about a commodity which is finite in number and therefore there is no objection to the press expressing arguably limited opinions with a loud voice?

  • I think that -- I don't think actually there's -- in print, there are an infinite number of things that people could say. I think on most important questions there's probably a limited number of reasonable things that people could say. It's more a question of: are the structures of the press, as well as being free, sufficiently diverse to ensure that the reasonable things that could be said are represented?

    So to take ethical matters, for example -- I mean, I think that there is more discussion of medical ethics in the newspapers but I think sometimes certain types of opinions on key ethical issues are not so well represented as others.

  • Thank you. Ethical duties of the press in their public role. It's under question 7, slightly out of sequence. Is it inconsistent or consistent with the notion of a free press that the press should nonetheless owe ethical obligations?

  • No, no, I think that's -- I mean, I think freedom and responsibility are not incompatible notions. What I suppose I'm -- principally behind the notion of freedom in my account is freedom from censorship, from authorities coming in and telling the press what they may or may not say with respect to output, but they may nonetheless have a number of responsibilities they need to respect in producing those outputs. I think that's -- yeah -- very important. No, I don't see them as inconsistent.

  • Yes. The sort of responsibilities you have in mind, on the -- your document doesn't have internal numbering. It's our page 00913, but on the second page of the section, which is dealing with responsibilities, it's question 7.

  • You itemise some of these:

    "(a) Obligations to readers and consumers of accuracy, rigour, honesty and truthfulness."

    And then (b):

    "Similar obligations follow to those who are reported on, whether as stories or images, whether as primarily or secondary parties."

  • Then there are obligations not to interfere with private rights.

  • In terms of the crucial issue of balance, you go on to say there isn't a simple algorithm for resolving conflicts. But what are the general principles which are in play, resolving conflicts in this domain?

  • Well, you have how important the information you're wishing to present is, and the importance will -- the public good has a range of -- it might be important to making decisions -- politician decisions about education, health, welfare, so on. It could be important for preservation of security, and you're balancing that against the fact that in some of these obligations there are kind of side constraints, so about what you may do to children and so on. Some of these obligations are not side constraints but requirements that in presenting that information, you do so in tender ways.

    Going back to the last point -- liberty, freedom and responsibility -- it's not licensed. Freedom is not licensed, and that's the way in which all these responsibilities bear on how you exercise your freedom. So you have those guiding aims of the media that I set out at the beginning -- holding people accountable and presenting information -- serving those roles and then these constraints of two sorts.

  • When you refer to the importance of information, obviously the more important the information is, the less restriction upon the dissemination of it you would like to impose?

  • That's obvious.

  • But may there be a distinction then between what the press does in terms of its core function, which is to contribute to the public good in a democratic society, and some of the other functions of the press, which may be to entertain?

  • But if you're talking about entertainment, then you're more likely to be looking at possible constraints?

  • Because other people's rights may come in and of course, the nature of the information is, by definition, less important.

  • Absolutely, yes. I suppose what I'd say, just going to that -- I mean, it's difficult to -- I mean, one has in mind these general principles but elaborating and fleshing them out is a very much a case-by-case matter, on a sort of casuistical approach, helps people to come to appreciate what counts as significant and what counts as less significant and so on, and that's partly why I think one can have these codes but for them to be lived codes, people have to think through what these slightly abstract notions mean and that is, as I say, partly casuistic and experience, and therefore developing sort of a kind of practical wisdom in that light.

  • But you've had to do that in the other work you've done, I notice in relation to your work with accountants.

  • So that's thought the practical implications through to a very different type of endeavour.

  • Yes. Well, I suppose I'd say the thing that was more analogous would be the -- also with the engineers, where there was -- I worked with the engineers and the Royal Academy of Engineering came up with a statement of four ethical principles which were quite abstract, and what we did with them was produce a guide to those principles which was a set of case studies to try and make them lived for practising engineers.

  • I think I knew about the accountants.

  • Yes, that's right. That's the one I sent through because that was very much about emphasising the importance of culture in organisations, and part of developing that culture is allowing people to think these things through on a case-by-case basis and discuss them.

  • I'm only proving I've read it.

  • I suppose the difficulty with a code is that there's always a tension between setting out principles at a high level of generality, which people will naturally understand, on the one hand, and setting out too much detail on the other, because if you set out too much detail, you know from experience you run into difficulty because individual cases may be more subtle and you're excluding the possibility of the casuistical reasoning and you're building up a corpus of caselaw, if you like, from experience, on the other.

    Do you have a view as to whether the existing Editors' Code, without looking at the detail of it, strikes the right balance between those two competing objectives?

  • Yeah, I don't -- I think it it's -- my -- yes, I think the concern -- I have some concern about the code but not particularly about it going into too much detail and -- or too little. I think it's clear enough in that sort of way. I suppose I felt that for me, it's a problem -- when I read it through, its problem was that it reads primarily as a list of prohibitions with a slightly hand-waving reference to the public interest. If I was a practising journalist, I would find it difficult to see how the whole thing hung together in terms of my professional -- in terms of developing good judgment as a professional journalist.

  • We should come back to that because that's a very important point.

  • I need to pick up some other points before we get there, as it were. Question 4. I looked at ethical duties, question 7, out of sequence but at question 4, you make some points there about maximising the overall public interest and the dangers, for example, in concentrating ownership in a small number of individuals. Can I ask you, please, to develop the points you make under this heading, Professor Megone?

  • Right. It's an issue we've already touched on about the concentration of a small number of journalists -- of owners and editors may have an effect on the opinion side of a press' activity and the range of opinion that might be presented. There's also questions with respect to ownership about -- possibly about the commitment of the owners to the society in which they live, and therefore their -- so if you have foreign owners, it might be the case that they have less of a commitment to a common good in that society. They have less interest in it. They don't live in that society; they live somewhere else. The pressing nature of the common good in that society may seem less important than perhaps commercial interests and so on. At least it's something that if one were the foreign owner, one would have to be aware of.

    Even with respect to presentation of facts of your information, I think a range of media organisations serves as one of the ways -- one of the checks on that. So competing newspapers can actually serve to qualify, correct and so on the factual information that is presented by showing that one newspaper has missed out crucial things and so on and so forth.

    So I think in various ways, competition between the media in both representation of views and with respect to facts is enhanced by diversity.

  • Thank you. You also refer to relationships between members of a free press and public figures and the sort of issues and problems which might arise there.

  • Could I ask you, please, to expand on that? Top of our page 00909.

  • Well, I suppose that the press is presenting information to the public. There are lots of people who, for different reasons, have an interest in conveying their information and in some cases their views, their opinions to the public. So there will be politicians, business people, perhaps senior people in other positions of influence and organisations, maybe cultural organisations, who want to get certain information across to the public and are competing for space with the media. So they will have an interest in having certain kinds of relationships to ensure that that information gets across, and I think journalists have an interest in that as well because it helps them -- gives them crucial conduits to getting at certain kinds of information that they want to get at. But clearly, unless you're careful, these potentially valuable, mutually valuable relationships can be distorted in certain ways, so that on the one hand the journalist might be encouraged to think that they, by their -- the people who are their conduits, that they should present information in certain sorts of ways that are more amenable to those people, and on the other hand, it could be the case that those people are in positions which could affect the media organisation's own operation and they may be encouraged to think that if they do that in certain sorts of ways they will get a better press, you know.

    So it's a natural relationship to have between politicians, business and the like and the media, but it's one that can be -- needs to be handled with great care.

  • Mm. That leads on to question 5. You were asked for your views on the extent to which the overall public interest is currently well served, both in principle and in practice. You make an interesting point in the paragraph beginning:

    "In my view, the press itself at present assumes too quickly that freedom of the press is sufficient to guarantee the press serves its distinctive role in contributing to the public interest."

    That argument is or has been advanced on occasion before us, but can I ask you, please, to explain your think the press' assumption is too swift?

  • I suppose if you go back to the PCC code of ethics, it has -- although I don't think it has a very satisfactory account of the public interest, it explicitly states that freedom of expression is itself part of the public interest, and I think that it's -- and that, the public interest, qualifies a number of the constraints that are placed on the media in that code, and I think a kind of slippage can happen in which this freedom of expression is seen to be the primary public interest the public has in the press, and then that can then seem as liable to trump many of the other side constraints.

  • So -- and if one's a journalist and one values being allowed to write what one thinks is important, yes, by -- there's a kind of, as I say, a natural slippage in which this freedom of expression can be seen to be the dominating aspect of one's code.

  • Should it be rebalanced? And if so, how?

  • Well, it's -- yes, I think it should. I mean -- so when I read the code I was a little -- properly, you know, thinking about it for this -- particularly for this Inquiry -- I read it more cursorily for teaching students -- it is striking that there are parts of that code which explicitly rather strongly regulate against, prohibit some sorts of activities which have clearly been going on, as has come before this Inquiry, and I think that what needs to be done is that the people who are -- the journalists and editors and media organisation owners whose activities fall under this code need to think through more carefully how those different parts of the code bear on one another.

    So it isn't -- it's partly having a clearer sense, a broader sense of the public interest and understanding the -- how free expression contributes to serving that public interest, it isn't itself the whole of the public interest, and then it's secondly recognising that although the public interest in providing information and holding people to account is very important, there are these very serious other constraints and they do need to be taken very seriously, and that freedom of expression doesn't dominate.

    So, well -- and how -- well, as I say, I think that part of the problem must be the culture of the organisations. It must be that in the -- I mean, to take the phone hacking which has come before you. My amateur suspicion is there must have been people in organisations where this was going on who were aware of it and must have been concerned but didn't raise their voices. One can think of this happening in other organisations, in hospitals and so on, where things have been going on and whistle-blowing doesn't happen in this culture.

    So I think there must be with a cultural issue about the capacity of people to raise concerns about when they think that certain things are being done which shouldn't be done, even though that would prevent certain things being freely expressed. So I think it's very much about this code becoming much more a lived code in organisations and an open culture in which people can express their concerns. And the editors, of course -- I've said something about the responsibility of editors and so on and part of the structural things you might do --

  • But is it simply the responsibility of editors? You said, in the course of that answer that what needs to be done is that the people who are -- the journalists, the editors, the proprietors, they need to get to grips with it, but is this something that also ought to happen externally or should it just be left to them to do?

  • Again I think there should be a reporting process to an external organisation but I think the purpose of that reporting should not -- at the moment, it seems as if the Press Complaints Commission is primarily tasked with dealing with post hoc complaints and allowing people then to have an answer or to have remedies. So there might be something which is addressed -- a process of reporting which was designed to focus on the character and culture of the organisations.

    So the suggestion I had, which is a bit like goes on -- the corporate governance reporting that goes on in business -- I think the corporate governance reporting in business could be better done, but I think that there could be something -- a report which the editor drew up each year which looked at the processes and the behaviours of the organisation against the objectives -- the moral objectives of that organisation to promote the public interest, and that would report to an auditor or an ombudsman, both about the structures and about the outputs or the effects of those structures on the behaviours of the organisation.

    So it would be -- yes, there would be a focus on the internal thing but you'd have a reporting mechanism. But the reporting mechanism wouldn't just be designed to deal with complaints; it would also perhaps be an annual kind of corporate governance report which would encourage the development of an appropriate culture. So it's a kind of reporting mechanism designed to focus on character enhancement rather than complaints.

  • In relation to the development of the code, we heard from Ofcom last week that actually they consider it unimaginable -- I think that was the word that Mr Richards used -- that, as it were, those in the business at the time should sit on these bodies, that it had to be done independently, perhaps with people who had been in the bodies but not currently serving. Do you have -- is there an ethical or a philosophical --

  • Well, I suppose from my -- it touches on the interdisciplinary nature of my work.

  • That's why you're here, Professor.

  • Yes. I think that in this area, if you just had someone like me as an ethicist, for example -- what I found in other works, say in engineering ethics, is I lack the experience of what it is like being that kind of person. I am unaware of the pressures they're under, and so I think you would need, as you've suggested, people who are experienced in the media -- perhaps, as you suggest, not current but people who are sufficiently close, so recent members of the media -- to know -- to not have -- to have views about how culture and practice can be enhanced which are not -- you know, philosophers, we're often criticised for being -- I won't say cloud cuckoo land but in an --

  • At a remove, yes. So my work is enhanced if I'm doing it together with people who can qualify and inform what I am saying by detailed knowledge of what it's like to be -- yeah. But maybe, as you say -- no.

  • You had a number of specific points to make about the code. Indeed, these will be valuable points, given your interdisciplinary experience. You can draw on codes from analogous or otherwise areas. But one point you made is the code appears to be full of prohibitions and that's a defect. Why is that a defect?

  • As I say, I think it encourages a view of ethic as coming into the picture when things are being done wrong, going wrong, and then encourages the view that the complaints commission -- the press -- I forget the name -- that you go to it to register a complaint, rather than the purpose of a code as something like to develop good professional judgment, when ethics is a key part of good professional judgment, as well as, of course, experience of assessment of facts and so on and so forth.

    So I think you need a code which has a more -- expresses in a more positive way the positive contribution that the press plays to the common good, contributes to the common good, and then the restraints on the ways in which you may behave in pursuing that public good, and I think the role of those constraints then becomes a bit more intelligible if you're clear about the public good, the importance of what you're doing, and the extent to which those constraints may sometimes be overridden becomes more intelligible, if you're clear about the good.

    So, yeah, those are the principle concerns. In ethics, we have a positive connotation as well as a negative one and if there's a kind of over-arching understanding from the code rather than a kind of piecemeal set of "don't to this, don't do that" ...

  • In terms of positive contribution, would you be including within that a public interest in freedom of expression itself and what else, in any event, would you be including?

  • I'd want to explain the role of freedom of expression in terms of its importance in contributing to the two over-arching goods that I have claimed. So freedom of expression's important because the press has this role of presenting information to enable us to make choices about all aspects of our life. What that means is we don't want -- powerful organisations must not be in a position to stop certain information getting to us, whether it's government or business or -- and secondly, on that side, freedom of expression is important in allowing a diverse set of opinions to be presented. There's the opinion and fact side. Then freedom of expression is important in order to allow us to hold people accountable. So there mustn't be people who can stop certain things getting out because if those things were to get out, it would be bad for them and the responsibilities they have to us.

    So that's the way I would say it comes in. It's understood as a mean, as serving an instrumental role in the service of these -- this greater good.

  • How would the code be framed so as to foster the right sort of culture you were referring to? It's not just a culture which understands the proper contours of freedom of expression but it's a culture which is beneficial in a whole range of other respects. Because one sees that in, well, a whole host of professional codes. Quite a lot of the code is about inculcating correct behaviour and correct judgments but if that's important for journalism, editorial practice, how would the code be drafted so as to do that?

  • That's somewhat more emphasis on certain aspirational things. So if you take the accuracy section of the code, the press must state they're not printing inaccurate or distorted information, I suppose that one could place that more positively, that the aspiration to present the facts, to present the truth impartially -- I can't do it off the top of the my head, but I think there would be a way of stating that in a more aspiration role as a sort of high calling to accuracy and rigour.

    So some of it would be on the emphasis on aspiration to honesty, truth, rigour, not just mentioning all the things you mustn't do in pursuing those things. So getting a sense of, yeah, positive attributes of --

  • To provide the context better to assist to justify the negatives.

  • Thank you. Finally, the other factors, aside from the code, which might create the right sort of culture, could you summarise those for us, please?

  • Yes. So this is in the -- yes. So issues about leadership. That, from this other work in other organisations, seems tremendously important.

  • And this is the accountants?

  • Yes, it is, absolutely. I talked about an open culture, which I think does need unpacking, but that would include opportunities for discussion of difficult issues, perhaps a confidential something to whom people could turn within an organisation if they had concerns for advice as to how they would pursue those concerns, proper whistle-blowing procedures. I mean those are rather negative. Rewards for positive behaviour. I think we have a list of ten, but the most important we would say are leadership issues.

  • And what you don't think is necessarily the answer is simply training?

  • Well, yes. We want to say that with some care. There are certain types of ethics training which are not very effective, and they won't work just by themselves. You can't just send people off for an afternoon -- and we've had this reported to us in a range of other contexts: don't just send people off for an afternoon and expect ethics training to change, because they'll go back to an office where there's a certain kind of culture and accepted norms, and the accepted norms will dominate anything they might have thought about in that afternoon behaviourally, so there's kind of a psychological claim incorporated in that.

  • Yes, it's not just a question of ticking the box: had the ethics training, therefore that's done; now I can go back to doing what I do.

  • Exactly. However, we would say that ethics training incorporated within or additional to these other things, so, for example, bringing -- some people like a philosopher and potentially another journalist working together and going through some challenging case studies within an organisation which is taking these things seriously can enhance and aid people because you do need time to reflect on these challenges and often in the day-to-day hubbub of working life you don't have that time, so as a kind of enhancement but it has to be with these other things, leadership and so on.

  • Those are all the points I had arising out of Professor Megone's evidence.

  • Professor Megone, thank you very much indeed. You said it's quite difficult to think of things off the top of your head and I entirely recognise that. I think the most important material that you provided us with is extremely valuable. Your oral elaboration assists, but if there's anything you do want to add in the light of questions you've been asked or you've thought of, please don't hesitate.

  • Thank you very much for coming. 2.15 pm.

  • (The luncheon adjournment)

  • Yes, Mr Jay.

  • We now have Dr Neil Manson, please.