Hugh McLachlan: Getting to the root of ethics in the media

It is one thing to ensure journalists do not break the law, it is another for regulators to decide on issues of morality

DAVID Cameron has proposed that there should be a public inquiry into the law and another into the ethics of journalism in the UK. He has also proposed that there should be a new body to regulate the conduct of journalists.

The proposals are understandable. Politicians like to appear to be doing things even if to do nothing might sometimes be the brave and wise response to some events.

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Furthermore, public inquiries take time and they give politicians breathing space until other issues arise to distract public attention. However, from the point of view of public policy, the rationale for the proposals is unclear.

Law and ethics are different spheres, and Mr Cameron is right to distinguish between them.

Imagine that, when a honeymoon couple were on a shooting holiday on a remote Scottish island, they had a car crash and that the husband, although only slightly injured and fully conscious, was immovably trapped in their open top car.

Suppose that the car caught fire in a clump of large bushes. Suppose that there were no fire engines or emergency services of any sort on the island and that the trapped person faced the torment of being burned alive.

If the husband, in his agony, begged to be shot, it might be morally permissible for the wife to accede to his request rather than to listen to his screams. It might even be argued that the wife would be morally obliged to end her husband's anguish in such circumstances, if she could do so.

The action of intentionally killing someone is illegal. It does not follow that, on that account, the wife should not perform it. If it is morally the right thing to do, she ought to do it whether or not it is illegal.

Similarly, the question of what journalists ought to do is different from the question of what they are legally permitted and legally obliged to do even if it turns out that, in almost all normal circumstances they ought to obey the law.

Sometimes, it is morally and legally justifiable for some authorised people to invade some particular people's privacy as, say, in the combating of prospective terrorism.

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However, it is rarely, if ever, justifiable for ordinary citizens or journalists to do so. If they do become privy by illegal means to information of criminal activity, their primary moral and legal duties are to pass it on to the police rather than to publish a story about it.

Nonetheless, we cannot rule out the possibility that, in some unusual circumstances, it might be morally justifiable or, even, morally obligatory for journalists and others to break the law to gather and to publish information. However, we cannot expect a public inquiry to tell us what these circumstances might be. That must remain a matter of personal reflection.

Politicians might consider modifying existing laws or proposing new ones. That is their role. However, it is not clear that there is anything wrong with the current laws rather than with the enforcement of them.

It is, and should be, illegal to intercept people's mail and to hack into private telephone calls. It is, and should be, illegal to aid and abet people to do such things. It is, and should be, illegal to offer bribes to policemen and illegal for policemen to accept them.

It is illegal for any citizen to do such things. The laws are not directed specifically towards journalists and journalism, nor should they be.

I would suggest that we should not have a positive legal right to privacy as such but, rather, we should have a legal right that our privacy is not invaded in particular ways.

For instance, if we are overheard on a bus to say that we are having an adulterous affair, it should be legal to publish a true story about it, no matter how damaging the revelation is to us and to our family life.

However, publication should not be permitted if the information is produced by, say, tapping our phone or opening our mail. That the publication is deemed by someone or other to be in the "public interest" is not an excuse ethically and should not necessarily count as one legally.

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The public interest is a highly dubious notion. It is not the case that there is always a paramount moral duty to promote it even if there could be general agreement on what the public interest happens to be.

The moral rights of individuals citizens, including their rights pertaining to privacy, can trump the supposed claims of the public interest. That people who commit serious crimes walk free from court unpunished might well be contrary to the public interest. However, we have a moral duty to let them walk free if their guilt has not been properly legally established.

Can journalists be left to regulate themselves? That question is much discussed at the moment. However, it is misconceived. Journalists are not left to regulate their own behaviour any more or less than the rest of us are. They, and we, are subject to the law of the land.

It is the function of the police, the courts, the Crown Office in Scotland and similar sorts of bodies in the rest of the UK to enforce the laws.

It is the function of parliament to pass them. It seems strange for politicians to appear to apologise for failing to control the behaviour of journalists and of newspaper barons. It is not their role to do so.

In some professions, such as, say, dentistry and medicine, there is a need for professional bodies to monitor and accredit practitioners as suitably qualified experts.

For instance, if you need dental treatment, it is reassuring to know that the person whom you permit to tinker with your teeth and gums using sharp instruments has the skills, knowledge and experience to do such things without causing undue harm or pain.

Similarly, if you want, say, to have a gas fire fitted or to install a new toilet in your home, it is useful to have the assurance that particular people can be identified by some regulatory body that we can trust as being suitable to provide such services for us.

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These considerations do not apply in the case of journalists and journalism.

Furthermore, it is not the proper role of such professional bodies to enforce the law. That is the function of the police and the courts. It is not the proper role of such bodies to enforce ethical principles or to regulate morality. No-one has the authority to enforce or regulate such things. There are no recognised, authorised experts with regard to ethics in the sense that there are with regard, say, to the filling of teeth or the replacement of gas cookers.

We would not imagine that it would be a sensible idea to instigate a public inquiry to decide what the law regarding euthanasia should be. Similarly, the notion of setting up a public inquiry to decide what the ethics of euthanasia are would be very strange.

For instance, we would not expect a public inquiry to tell us whether or not the bride ought to have killed the groom in my suggested example of the honeymoon couple.

It is always worthwhile to discuss how we ought to behave and whether or not the laws of the country, including those that are relevant to journalism, should be changed.

However, we do not need a public inquiry to conduct such a debate. We do not normally instigate public inquiries for such a purpose and it is far from clear why it should be thought that, in this instance, public inquiries would be useful.

• Hugh McLachlan is professor of applied philosophy in the School of Law and Social Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University.