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THE TABLET

THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY F O U N D E D I N 1 8 4 0

ETHICS OF JOURNALISM

USE AND ABUSE OF

PRESS FREEDOM

Reacting to the jailing of three al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt and the sentencing in absentia of several others, Foreign Secretary William Hague rightly observed: “Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of a stable and prosperous society.” Press freedom is a value that needs to be defended by everyone, for it is exercised on behalf of everyone. But a particular responsibility lies with journalists and broadcasters. It was fitting that journalists working for the BBC, for instance, should leave their desks in London and Salford to take part in a silent protest demonstration this week. Governments and media organisations must continue the pressure on the Egyptian authorities, until the three are released.

As well as Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, there are other journalists in the news who may face jail sentences arising from their work; and the contrast is salutary. The former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, was found guilty by an Old Bailey jury of conspiracy to hack voicemail messages. Other journalists face trial over similar issues and some have already pleaded guilty and await sentence. His successor as editor at the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, was cleared of all charges, as were several others also on trial with her. What happened at the News of the World was not proper journalism but the corruption of journalism, all the more shocking as that newspaper had a fine record in the exposure of wrongdoing. Circulationbuilding imperatives, for which Rupert Murdoch has to take some responsibility, drove tabloid newspapers to compete for items of gossip about people in the public eye, very little of which could be defended as being in the public interest. Some journalists on the News of the World found a cheap and easy route to these stories by listening to voicemail messages left by or for various celebrities, a practice which is illegal. Mr Coulson sanctioned this, the jury decided, and Ms Brooks did not. In either case, the culture on this newspaper and probably others was both “anything goes” in news-gathering methods, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” in reporting to editorial management where stories had come from. Phone hacking was not the only illegal method alleged – bribery of public officials may have gone on as well, but the prosecution has so far failed to nail any culprits.

The Egyptian case, which involved interviews that al-Jazeera broadcasters had conducted with members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, was an attack on professional journalism from outside, primarily by the military Government that had overthrown President Mohammed Mursi. The News of the World scandal was an attack on professional journalism from within – a betrayal of trust by some of its most important practitioners.

The two are related, because misconduct by some discredits the whole. It makes it easier for the authorities in Cairo, for instance, to claim that those working for al-Jazeera were not seeking out the truth for the sake of the common good – in accordance with internationally accepted journalistic standards – but advancing an agenda which served the interests of alJazeera’s proprietors, the ruling family of Qatar. Just as journalists on the News of the World could be seen to be basking in the esteem of their proprietors – the Murdoch family – whose interests they also served. And that is where the finger still points.

END OF LIFE

PERSONAL AUTONOMY

IS NOT THE ONLY ISSUE

The United Kingdom Supreme Court has this week nicely set the stage for a battle royal over the so-called “right to die” when a new Assisted Dying Bill is debated in three weeks’ time. The court said that the choices raised by the appeals before them were more appropriate for Parliament, as they involved moral rather than legal judgements which ought to reflect public opinion.

The bill has been introduced into the Lords by Lord Falconer, a former Lord Chancellor, and proposes very tight conditions under which, without rendering themselves liable for prosecution, doctors may supply terminally ill patients with drugs intended to kill them. The argument behind it is that the European Court of Human Rights has interpreted Article 8.1 of the convention on human rights, the right to privacy and family life, as including the right to determine how and when one is to die. In some cases where the patient is severely incapacitated, they cannot exercise that right without the help of others. But at present those others risk being prosecuted.

Campaigners were not satisfied with a ruling by the director of public prosecutions in 2010 that where assistance to die was given from compassionate motives and certain other conditions were met, no prosecution was likely. But to say in advance that a certain course of action would be immune from prosecution would amount to a change in the law.

That is what Lord Falconer’s bill proposes. Its supporters tend to be secular, presenting the debate as a clash between religion and personal autonomy.

Opponents of assisted suicide have a strong case without resort to theology. They say the law already recognises – as do many in the medical profession – that there is a real danger that vulnerable people nearing the end of their lives might feel under pressure to seek assisted suicide once the law explicitly allows it. The European Court of Human Rights has said that Article 8.1 – the “right to die” clause – should not be allowed to interfere with the rights of others, especially the right to life protected under Article 8.2. The Supreme Court commented that this required a judgment about the relative importance of the right to commit suicide and the right of the vulnerable, especially the old and sick, to be protected from direct or indirect pressure to do so.

These factors are crucial. As the population ages, millions are likely to find themselves dependent on others for their well-being. The availability of assisted suicide administered painlessly by their doctor suddenly makes their situation one they have chosen, and therefore one they could end at will. That is a radical change in the circumstances not just of a few who seek autonomy as the highest philosophical good, but of virtually an entire age group who are among the most vulnerable. They have rights too.

2 | THE TABLET | 28 JUNE 2014

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