Ethical lessons from the 60 Minutes abduction saga

By MARK PEARSON

International readers of this blog might be unaware of the national debate in Australia over the involvement of an Australian 60 Minutes television current affairs crew in last month’s abduction of two children in Lebanon who were the subject of a parental custody dispute.

The Australian mother of the child – Sally Faulkner – and the reporter Tara Brown and her three crew were jailed for two weeks along with the alleged abduction contractor Adam Whittington who remained in jail seeking bail this week.

The Nine Entertainment Company announced an investigation into the circumstances surrounding its flagship current affairs program’s involvement in the failed abduction attempt.

Following that announcement (April 21, 2016) ABC Gold Coast’s Matt Webber interviewed me about the ethical dimensions of the saga.

Here is the recording of that interview. [Transcription below by Virginia Leighton-Jackson].

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Interview with ABC Gold Coast’s Matt Webber

Matt Webber: Let’s concentrate on the Nine Network for now. What are the main questions it needs to answer?

Mark Pearson (@journlaw): Well Matt, I think in your introduction you started to hit upon the main questions, and I think they’re questions that need [answering] – I mean hindsight is a wonderful thing and it’s very easy for an academic like me to be looking at this in hindsight and saying all the things that should have been done. But the sorts of questions that you were just asking [are relevant] – Who is involved? Who are the stakeholders? Who are those who might get hurt through such a story? The first thing Channel Nine should be doing, I believe, is setting up accountable systems where those questions are actually asked before stories are embarked upon. And that involves…

MW: Are we naive to think that wouldn’t happen?

MP: I don’t think so; I think people would get carried away, and particularly in a highly emotionally charged story like a custody battle it’s very easy to hear one party’s side of the story. Another issue here is of course is the simple fact of obeying laws. Now, there seems to be like a cultural view that has come through this story that going to another place, the ‘other’, a place like Lebanon, excuses journalists from doing what would be absolutely illegal for them to be doing here in Australia. I mean only a couple of years ago one of the leading news stories was a custody battle over children in Queensland where the Italian father had won custody of the children, and the family – the grandparents and the mother – were fighting the order of the court that the children be taken back to Italy. What if that had happened in that case? Just say the order had gone the other way and the father and an Italian TV crew was here and the children were grabbed on the streets of the Gold Coast and taken, and the plan was to take them to a boat at Southport, and somehow the TV crew had helped fund the abduction. Can people imagine what would have happened there? So what Channel Nine needs to be asking is what is going on there culturally in their mindset about these sorts of stories to think that it’s okay to do that in Lebanon, but it’s not okay to do it in Australia. What’s their view of another country’s legal system that allows that to happen?

Now there’s still a lot of this story to come out, facts that we will hear about – you just played a part of the father’s version of whether or not people are being paid or whatever. The truth of all of that will eventually come out. But I think what Channel Nine needs to do is actually follow the privacy guidelines of ACMA, the Broadcasting Authority, but follow them to the letter. They are not obligatory, but they need to actually look at them; where it says that children are more vulnerable, and the privacy of children is something that really needs close scrutiny. And in public interest – what they might call public interest doesn’t outweigh the rights of children to be considered. A story like this has ripple effects across a whole range of stakeholders, and they need to actually have a formalised process which goes through considering the potential impact on all of those involved – including in this case, the news crew.

MW: Indeed. Mark Pearson, a professor in journalism at Griffith University. Often ‘journalistic ethics’ is a pair of words that is tossed around fairly liberally. The Code of Ethics that journalists need to adhere to, are they sufficiently aware of it? Or are they far too ignorant of it, either wilfully or otherwise?

MP: Well, journalists do know about the Code of Ethics, and most journalists these days have been through some journalism program, like a degree or whatever and have learned about the Code of Ethics. But the big problem with the Australian journalists’ Code of Ethics, and most others, is that there is a whopping ‘get-out’ clause. What it says is that all of these are things that should be strived for, but if the public interest, or if the story is of such public concern then that excuses journalists, outweighing those ethical considerations. But it does make specific reference to chequebook journalism – now I’m not saying that’s happened in this case, is it chequebook journalism to help fund an operation? Well, that’s something we’ll be able to discuss once more facts come out. But also things like dealing with children and the vulnerable, and thinking of those potential implications.

So I think it’s more than just journalists’ ethics: it’s a basic moral code that most humans think twice before they do something that is related to or can impact badly on children’s lives. And so if anything comes of this, I would hope that people take special care, and newsrooms implement practices that ring extra alarm bells if there are going to be children involved in any story.

MW: What about those who will argue that look, commercial television is, particularly commercial TV Current Affairs, is a wild and woolly old world, boundaries will always be pushed; that’s the nature of capitalism in many regards. This shouldn’t come as any surprise that this sort of thing is happening. What do you say to those types?

MP: Well if there is a commercial or a capitalism argument for breaching ethics I think you can counter that with another equally commercial or capitalist argument: and that is the only thing that journalism has left these days, compared with its internet rivals, compared with the jungle of news breakers out there who might be citizen journalists or people doing it simply for a commercial imperative, the only thing that we have remaining to sell news is credibility and respect in the community. And that comes through having an ethical code that journalists adhere to. I think 60 Minutes has lost a lot of credibility out of this, and I think Channel Nine will be reviewing that because there is a commercial loss involved when you’ve overstepped the mark and you lose respect in the eyes of the community. 60 Minutes used to be a wonderful news brand, and Channel Nine will be asking what’s happened to that in the wake of this episode.

MW: Interesting observations, Mark Pearson, I really appreciate your time. Thank you.

MP: Thanks Matt

MW: Mark Pearson, Professor of Journalism and Social Media at Griffith University’s School of Humanities (Languages, and Social Science).

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RELATED:

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.

Interested? You can listen to my 10 minute interview on Radio National’s Media Report here.

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See also my 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.

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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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