Last week I addressed Highway Africa, a group of African
journalists, academics and media-linked professionals, in Jamestown, South
Africa on the ethics of journalism.
I acknowledged to the audience that it may have seemed an
odd time for a British journalist to mount a defence of ethical journalism,
with the UK's phone-hacking scandal (when journalists intercepted voicemails of
hundreds of people) so fresh in people’s memories. The uproar, sackings,
resignations and, in the case of the News of the World, newspaper closure,
resulted in a public enquiry whose conclusions urged reform.
But ethics in journalism is the same the world over, the
context will change and the support structures differ, but journalists are
always operating in challenging environments that can constrain what we do. I
suggested that a set of values that shape ethical journalism should be the same
everywhere. (You can read my full speech here.)
I’d arrived in Jamestown direct from Nairobi where I’d taken
part in a BBC Africa debate
on the role of international media in Africa. One of the most interesting
discussions came from a group of Kenyan journalists reflecting on this year’s
elections, who said they felt that there had been insufficient examination of
the past records of candidates and parties. But this was preferable, they said,
to the inflammatory roles played by partisan media in previous elections.
It struck me that the ethical framework described - in an
honest and frank way - was not one where the interests of truthful reporting on
behalf of the audience came first. Instead the unethical mistakes of the media
organisation stemmed from putting the concerns of others – chiefly the owners
and their affiliations – first. In the many places of the world where
journalism is undervalued and underpaid, the urge to join a culture of
‘brown-envelope’ backhanders can be tempting. Look again to the UK
phone-tapping scandal, the pressure to boost dwindling circulations and
revenues through sensationalism spurred that unethical drive.
The BBC is committed to upholding the best traditions of
journalism. The values, the editorial guidelines, the checks and balances we
put in place, are designed to help deliver strong and impartial news. We don’t
always get it right, but training, principles and guidelines help. And
increasingly the BBC is also committed to supporting and working in
partnerships with the many remarkable individuals and organisations in Africa
(and more widely) who are practising great journalism under immensely difficult
circumstances. As a profession, often working in dangerous, pressurised
settings, we need to work together to support each other.
So how can the BBC help tackle some of the shortcomings in
journalism? We make our editorial guidelines freely available on the BBC
website. We also provide free training on the BBC College of Journalism
website. We invest in new TV programmes, this year for example, launching
new TV programmes about Africa on BBC World News and Swahili TV. And last week
we announced the creation of an African business unit, creating stories about
Africa’s business transformation in all parts of the continent.
But we are conscious that investment needs to be of
benefit to the wider media sector too. In Nairobi we recently signed an
internship programme with the journalism faculty at the Multimedia University. The BBC has also
arranged training attachments for journalists from a number of partner radio
and TV stations across the continent.
We now intend to build further on that. In the year to
come the BBC will be agreeing a number of ambitious content-sharing
partnerships with media houses both large and small in Africa. This plan we are
calling the BBC's API - Africa Partnership Initiative. We hope our partners
will benefit from exposure to high BBC ethical standards and the ability to
tell stories of Africa to the world. And the BBC's audiences will benefit from
the broader range of content and viewpoints that media organisations who commit
to high standards can provide.
Another way we support ethical standards in African media
is through BBC
Media Action, working with African journalists, broadcasters and government
and non-government organisations to help the development of African media. Our
projects are supporting not only large-scale broadcast debates but also
community media and journalists working in some of the most remote and
difficult places on the continent.
BBC Sema Kenya and its presenter Joseph Warangu.
It all points to a wider
trend too, as there is growing recognition of and interest in the role of media
in a rapidly changing, information-rich world. And there are very encouraging
signs from the United Nations in further recognition of this. Earlier this year
the UN's High Level Panel, tasked with updating the Millennium Development
Goals, made a number of recommendations. Among the 12 new goals they proposed
is one on good governance which aims to: “Ensure people enjoy freedom of
speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information.”
This is a highly significant addition to the international
development programme, based on a large body of academic literature which shows
conclusive links between the strength of independent media, their ability to
promote good governance and positive outcomes in terms of human development.
The role of balanced and ethical reporting seems more
important than ever, as the challenges and pressures are perhaps greater than
they ever have been. While many more millions of us can access information
quickly are the sources credible and rigorous? And it is in this
context of building strong and reliable media partners that I'd like to see the
BBC developing in two-way collaboration. It's about checks and balances, rather
than cheque book journalism.