“You can’t handle the truth,” Jack Nicholson yelled to Tom Cruise in the military courtroom in A Few Good Men. The truth was that he was guilty but felt no guilt for his actions. The truth was he saw the ends justifying the means.
But when you find yourself covering over the means because others may not understand or appreciate your methods it is a pretty sure warning sign things might be going wrong. It was true in the film and it was true in the actions of the journalists that sparked the present crises and inquiry into the standards, practices and ethics of the press. Some vague notion of public interest was used to try and justify immeasurable harm to many, including those who had also suffered horrific tragedies.
A couple of months ago I gave an interview about media ethics and in it I stumbled upon an idea. It sort of developed as I spoke which is perhaps not a good approach to take when giving an interview. Certainly not a tactic you’d hear in any media training. What occurred to me was that Christians are often very clear on right and wrong on an individual level but keener to cite complexities and pragmatism when tackling corporate ethical questions. We sometimes resort to talking about tensions, as though that is ample justification to ignore what might be right and wrong.
And frequently there are tensions, if it’s OK to shoot a suicide bomber with his finger on the ring-pull of his C4 waistcoat in a crowded market, why is it not OK to use torture to extract information that would save an equal number of lives? Why was it that Nicholson’s character was wrong to do what he did? Why do the ends not justify the means? This is not a discussion on torture, but maybe we do need a clearer idea of what is right and wrong in a corporate context. Maybe we need to rediscover the value of morals and not just economic added value.
When you look at the criminality and cruel intrusion of the actions that sparked the downfall of the News of the World it’s hard to find any utilitarian argument that would justify or even explain their actions. They were wrong and they never should have happened. But they did, so as well as the criminal prosecutions into the actions of individuals it is only right that a longer look was taken at the system and environment that allowed them to occur.
The Leveson Inquiry and subsequent report sought to address this problem but it left a gaping hole at the heart of the problem that won’t be solved by any amount of new regulation. I can’t claim to have read the whole report – it’s 1,987 pages long – and to buy a hard copy would set you back £250. All the political debate is over whether the new regulatory framework requires legislation, and if it does, whether that is too grave a threat to the freedom of the press. The hope is that once a new system is established, unburdened by the catastrophic failures of recent years some trust can be restored to the media we consume.
But no new structure will solve the problem, and new rules alone will only foster innovative ways to get around them. Christianity is too often seen as a religion of rules, but that completely misses the point. Rules are redundant if they are all we rely on. If we do not delve deeper and ask why we would wish to follow them then any effort to comply will be legalism and undone when a good enough reason comes along.
The future of the press needs a new foundation, but that foundation will not be secured through statutory underpinning but by moral values. Morality might not be considered cool, but if we want ethics then we must first know where they come from. If we want to restore trust then we must first have an idea of what truth is.