The view that journalism has wider responsibilities than trying to make money was publicly acknowledged in 1803, when the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser carried the statement that ‘information is our only purpose’. In 1854, the first edition of Melbourne’s Age informed readers that the newspaper was ‘the source on which society depends for reliable information on topics of current interest, and for the elucidation of great principles of public polity’; four years later, the editor of the Adelaide Advertiser declared that the newspaper’s aim was ‘To give as wide a cover of all the news of the day as possible, to provide guidance and service’.
While the importance of information provision was acknowledged early on, the idea that newspapers had ethical responsibilities took much longer to emerge. For most of the 19th century, journalists were widely viewed as a rough and ready lot, despite evidence that many were making a positive contribution to colonial life, most notably through the publication of material that today would be described as investigative journalism. Examples include the work of Melbourne journalist Maurice Brodzky, who exposed ‘lawlessness, waste and commercial malpractice which ruined hundreds of investors’, and Henry Britton’s exposure in the Melbourne Argus of the evils of blackbirding.
Investigative journalism has a strong ethical component because those who engage in it need to make moral judgements about the gravity of potential topics for investigation, and the potential implications for those involved. Ethical questions frequently arise in relation to such aspects as fairness and accuracy, sensationalism, relationships with sources, conflicts of interest and the influence of the more powerful members of society. As the 19th century advanced, many journalists gradually became aware of issues such as these.
According to Clifford Christians, the word ‘ethics’ was first used in a journalistic context in an 1889 essay on press criticism by W.S. Lilly entitled The Ethics of Journalism. This essay and the discussion it engendered contributed to the drafting of the first Code of Ethics (in Kansas in 1910), followed by the adoption in 1923 of a series of ‘canons’ of journalistic conduct by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. These developments attracted attention in Australia, and led eventually to a 15-point ethics code for editors being drawn up by the NSW Country Press Association in 1927. However, it was not until 1942 that Australia’s first Code of Ethics for journalists was drafted by the NSW district of the Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA), forerunner of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). After being accepted by individual states, this code was adopted by the federal conference of the AJA in 1944 and subsequently incorporated into the organisation’s constitution.
The AJA Code of Ethics was revised in 1984, with changes that included the removal of sexist language and an increased emphasis on privacy and anti-discrimination principles. A further review in 1994 culminated in the adoption by the MEAA of a revised Code of Ethics in 1999; among other things, it rejected plagiarism, condemned digital manipulation of images, added a preamble that linked journalism to democracy and freedom of expression, and enunciated the ‘fundamental principles’ of journalism as ‘honesty, fairness, independence, respect for the rights of others, respect for truth and the public’s right to information’.
Virtually from the time of its inception, the AJA Code was criticised because of limitations in regard to interpretation and enforcement, and because it applied only to journalists and not to editors. These weaknesses and the dissatisfaction they engendered contributed to the decision by Australia’s major newspapers to establish the Australian Press Council (APC) in 1976. The APC continues to be the main body with responsibility for responding to complaints about Australian newspapers, magazines and associated digital outlets.
Mechanisms for overseeing broadcast journalism standards developed somewhat later than they did for newspapers, sparked by the rise of radio journalism from the 1930s and of television journalism from 1956. The most significant government statutory authorities with responsibility for oversight of standards were the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, which became the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and later the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA). In 2005, the ABA merged with the Australian Communications Authority to form the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which continues to have responsibility for reviewing industry standards and Codes of Practice. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) and Free TV Australia (formerly the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations) also have separate Codes of Practice.
Since 1989, an important contributor to public awareness of media ethics in Australia has been ABC Television’s weekly Media Watch, which regularly draws attention to ethical blemishes and failures, including what the program’s website describes as ‘conflicts of interest, bank backflips, deceit, misrepresentation, manipulation, plagiarism, abuse of power, technical lies and straight-out fraud’. Other major ethical issues that have emerged in the Australian media in recent years include invasion of privacy, chequebook journalism, trial by media, intrusion into grief, diversity (or rather the lack of it) and what became known as ‘cash for comment’.
While there has been no shortage of examples of unethical behaviour in Australian journalism over the years, it is important to understand that such behaviour is limited to a relatively small number of practitioners, and that a great deal of high-quality, ethical journalism has been produced in Australia. Despite some expressions of public concern, there is no evidence of ‘phone hacking’ by journalists in Australia and no evidence that the scandal that has so seriously undermined British journalism has echoes here. Journalism ethics is now a dynamic and evolving field, which involves applying and balancing ethical principles and practice to the complex challenges faced by practitioners.
Public disquiet over media power in Australia was partly behind the Gillard Labor government’s decision in 2011 to establish the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation (known as the Finkelstein Inquiry). In the words of the chair, retired Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein, the underlying issue addressed was ‘how to accommodate the increasing and legitimate demand for press accountability, but to do so in a way that does not increase state power or inhibit the vigorous democratic role the press should play or undermine the key rationales for free speech and a free press’. Central to this is the right of redress for those who consider they have been misrepresented in the press. Finkelstein noted that Australia’s highly concentrated newspaper market means that consumers have little choice and little power to influence what is published. Further, he concluded that the existing system of self-regulation is ineffective.
Contrary to much media reportage at the time, Finkelstein’s report did not call for direct government control of the media, but rather a system of what could be described as enforced self-regulation via a government-funded statutory agency. The News Media Council would be better resourced than the APC, have jurisdiction over broadcast as well as print media, and have the power to compel media outlets to publish its findings. There was a strong negative reaction from the mainstream media. Amid public controversy, proposed legislation to enact Finkelstein’s recommendations failed to pass through federal parliament.
Since then, an uneasy stalemate has settled on the public debate over media ethics in Australia. This is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, as the Abbott Coalition government, elected in September 2013, has made it clear that it has no intention of returning to Finkelstein’s report — or, indeed, of acting on any of his recommendations.
REFs: C. Christians, ‘Chronology’, in E. Cohen and D. Elliott (eds), Contemporary Ethical Issues (1997); R. Finkelstein and M. Ricketson, Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation (2012); C.J. Lloyd, ‘The Historical Roots’, in S. Tanner (ed.), Journalism Investigation and Research (2002).