‘Right Speech’ and media law – mindful journalism as an analytical tool


Our book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath eds; Routledge, NY, 2015)  explored the possibilities of applying mindfulness techniques to journalism practice.

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I  recently wrote an article on the “Right Speech” aspect of mindful journalism for the International Communication Gazette titled ‘Enlightening communication analysis in Asia-Pacific: Media studies, ethics and law using a Buddhist perspective’. Its abstract and link to the full article is available here.

The article backgrounds important critiques of the Western approach to communication  studies, and considers how globalized communication and media studies has become, before exemplifying how a secular Buddhist perspective might offer 2,500 year-old analytical tools that can assist with media analysis, law and ethics.

The article proposes the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and their associated Noble Eightfold Path (magga) can be fruitful tools for informing communication theory and analysis, and media law and ethics.

In media analysis, it suggests the Buddha’s teachings on Right Speech (samma vaca) offer key understandings to assist with the deconstruction of media texts. In media law and ethics, it extends the application of Right Speech principles to comparing defences to libel (defamation) as they have developed in four Western jurisdictions.

Here is a brief extract showing the potential for exploring media law using a Buddhist/mindful journalism framework:

The ultimate contest over media talk and Right Speech happens in the courts when media texts face charges for their criminality or are the subject of civil suits over their alleged infringement on citizens’ rights like copyright, confidentiality and defamation. There is also value in applying a mindful, Buddhist approach to the study of communication and media law. We can hardly reject the teachings of the founder of one of the world’s greatest religions as inappropriate in a communication law context on exclusively secular grounds because that would imply our so-called secular approaches to communication and media theory and ethics have no religious roots. No Western academic could deny deep-seated Abrahamic influences upon the cultural origins of media law and its scholarship. A whole body of literature on the philosophy of science and religion attests to it. In media law and ethics, libertarian approaches to press freedom espoused by the likes of Milton, Mill and Jefferson arose in an era when political, cultural and religious notions of rights were intertwined. For example, the most famous treatise against licensing of the press – Milton’s Areopagitica – was prefaced with an explanation that Moses, David and Paul the Apostle were all learned because they were able to read widely. Milton wrote:

…as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye (Milton, 1644).

The U.S. Supreme Court cited Areopagitica in the landmark defamation case of New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) 376 US 254, when explaining why it would be counter-productive to move the burden of proving truth to the defendant (NY Times v. Sullivan, Footnote 19). Thus, by only two degrees of separation, we find Judeo-Christian teachings informing a key decision on news media talk in one of the most purportedly secular of institutions – the U.S. Supreme Court. Related to this, as Rolph (2008: 38-43) notes, defamation as the tort used to contest objectionable speech, first arose in England in 1222 in the ecclesiastical (church) courts where it remained a spiritual offence for about four centuries. Damage to a reputation was seen to be an offence to the target’s soul – a right that only God should possess – to be judged only by God’s earthly adjudicators, the clergy. There was even recourse for appeals from English ecclesiastical court judgments to the Pope (Rolph, 2008: 45). From the 16th century, defamation actions were increasingly brought in the common law courts, with the courts developing a list of allegations with which they would deal, without needing proof of actual damage being caused by the defamation (Morison & Sappideen 1989: 173). Even today the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists ‘detraction’ (essentially gossip – or disclosing ‘another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them’) as a sin – or an ‘offense against truth’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 2477). Thus, defamation action – the legal action available to those subjected to damaging media talk – has a traceable Christian genealogy.

In this globalised, multi-cultural and multi-jurisdictional Web 2.0 era there should be no reason why the Judeo-Christian lens should have a monopoly on our examination of communication law. A mindful reading of defamation law benefits from a consideration of both Right Speech principles and concepts of necessary truth-telling. While it is far-fetched to expect judges and legislators in the West would turn to Buddhism for the reform of defamation law, an effort to abide by truth-telling and Right Speech principles could operate effectively when professional communicators are attempting to avoid libel litigation when pursuing their stories. Further, they present excellent tools for an alternative analysis.

Analysis of the development of defamation defences in Canada, the UK, Australia and the U.S. benefit from a Buddhist reading. In Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61, [2009] 3 S.C.R. 640, the Supreme Court of Canada developed a ‘responsible communication’ defence to defamation for matters which might not have been able to be proven absolutely as true, but were still diligently reported and were clearly in the public interest to be aired within the spirit of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protection of free expression. Chief Justice McLachlin summed up the relevant factors of the ‘responsible communication’ defence on a demonstrable matter of public interest in these terms:

  • seriousness of the allegation
  • public importance of the matter
  • urgency of the matter
  • status and reliability of the source
  • whether the plaintiff’s side of the story was sought and accurately reported
  • whether the inclusion of the defamatory material was justifiable
  • whether a defamatory statement’s public interest lay in the fact that it had been made rather than whether it was truthful
  • other relevant circumstances

The court drew upon similar criteria to those developed earlier in the UK case of Reynolds v. Times Newspapers Ltd [2001] 2 AC 127 as part of the common law qualified privilege defence and elements of the statutory qualified privilege defence in Australia’s uniform Defamation Acts 2005.

The most significant First Amendment case in recent decades was New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) 376 US 254 where it was ruled that public of­ficials had to meet tough new tests before they could succeed in a defamation action even if the allegations in the article were proven false. It established that plaintiffs who were ‘public officials’ had to prove a media defendant had acted with ‘actual malice’ if they were to win a defamation action, even if the defamatory allegation was untrue. The test has since been expanded to apply to any ‘public figure’— essentially anyone who is well known to the public, has taken on some public role or who has participated voluntarily in some controversy. While the prin­ciple has some difficulties in definition and application, it has meant the media in the United States have been free to publish criticism of virtually anyone in the public domain, even if the criticism proves to be unfounded, just so long as they have not acted maliciously or in ‘reckless disregard’ of the truth.

It is possible to implement a Buddhist approach using the Right Speech teachings from the Noble Eightfold Path to conduct an analysis in this area of communication law. The author proposes to do this more thoroughly in future work. However, for the purposes of this argument we might return to the Abhaya Sutta … and contrast these defences as they have been developed in these jurisdictions (Thanissaro, 1997). Crucial to the Canadian ‘responsible communication’ defence and its qualified privilege cousins in the UK and Australia is the extent to which reporters and publishers honestly believe in the truth of the defamatory material published, even though they might not have the firm evidence to prove this in court. They would pass the Buddhist (mindful journalism) test if they had an honest belief the material was “factual, true, beneficial” while perhaps being “unendearing and disagreeable to others”, as long as they had chosen the “proper time” for reporting it (Thanissaro, 1997). However, the U.S. defences driven by the First Amendment takes this liberty a step too far under this schema, because it allows unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable material to be published about public figures as long as it has not been done with malice. It also allows for untruthful gossip-mongering, as identified earlier in the Saleyyaka Sutta (Nanamoli, 1994) as ethically problematic. Such analysis shows promise in the field of media law analysis, reform and policy development because it provides a working ethical framework to apply to legislation and the fact scenarios of particular cases.

I’ve also written a shorter account of the basic principles of mindful journalism in the journal Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, and the editors have been kind enough to make that article available for free viewing as a feature item on their website here. You might also want to explore some of their other fascinating articles on media ethics here and perhaps subscribe.


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2016

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Filed under blogging, Buddhism, citizen journalism, Eightfold Path, free expression, media ethics, mental health, social media

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