Media Ethics – A tale of two presidents

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair told a media ethics inquiry in London this week that he could not have stood up to the Britain’s media tycoons while in power – doing so would have dragged his administration into a political quagmire.

The particular ethics inquiry is being lead by Lord Justice Brian Leveson and was set up following revelations of voice mail interception at the now defunct Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid, a scandal which has raised concerns as to whether politicians helped to conceal Murdoch and the media in general from official scrutiny.

Blair harvested strong support from the press during the early years of his reign spanning 10 years including sustained patronage from media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s influential newspapers. Mr. Blair did however find himself in isolation towards the end of his decade in power due primarily to his decision to join the unpopular U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

In the wake of his waning popularity Blair stated: “I took a strategic decision to manage these people, not confront them,” he told Lord Justice Brian Leveson, who is leading the inquiry. “I didn’t say that I feared them … (but) had you decided to confront them, everything would have been pushed to the side. It would have been a huge battle with no guarantee of winning.”

While denying engaging in any kind of agreement with Murdoch, “either express or implied” — he admitted contacting the media tycoon ahead of elections to make sure that Labour could count on News Corp.’s support. Still, he acknowledged that politics and media had become “far more rude and brutal — and in a sense crude — in its interaction.”

The South African President, Jacob Zuma, can quite literally attest to the crudeness of the interaction between the media and the government with the City Press newspaper refusing to remove a satirical portrait of the President with his genitals exposed, from their website.

In their defence, both media entities will draw upon their right to freedom of expression but ethics has from a governance point of view evolved to the point where responsible business leaders must consider the economic, environmental and social impact of their activities on the community which they serve in order to build sustainable businesses.

In both cases, the King Report on Corporate Governance for South Africa 2009 would call upon the entities to consider both the short-term and long term impact of their personal and institutional decisions in the triple context within which they operate, more specifically the social context.

The question remains, what function do social and ethics committees perform within the context of media entities? Do they for that matter even exist? and if they did, what impact would they have on the way the entities reported their news?

Today sadly it’s all about reporting the story with incidental consideration given to the legitimate interests and expectations of their stakeholders. How then do media entities integrate the ethical leadership principles and guidelines as espoused in King III whose applicability to all entities is maintained?

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