Chris Patten: Journalists need own Hippocratic Oath

Chairman of the BBC Trust Chris Patten has suggested that journalists should adopt a version of the Hippocratic to replace or supplement the Editors’ Code.

Delivering the Society of Editors Lecture he said that the answer to the trust in journalism issues raised by the News of the World hacking scandal is “not necessarily to look immediately for a legal or regulatory solution”.

He said: “It may be to think more widely about how trust works.  Everyone inside and outside the media needs to be clear about why trust in the media matters, and what responsibilities that trust entails.

“In particular we need: first, maximum clarity about what is agreed to be ethically acceptable; and second, transparency about how ethics are applied, in a way that forms part of readers’ everyday experience of the journalism they see.

“To take a simple analogy – doctors have the Hippocratic Oath, and we all understand what it means. The PCC Code is not understood or trusted in the same way. If it is to be replaced, are there some clear and simple principles that we could all look to as a guide for print journalists and editors in their work?

“Can you, as the leaders of the industry, develop some form of watermark to distinguish proper, ethical journalism from the mass of intrusive and unregulated material that is available elsewhere?

“This will require more humility about the challenges involved.  It may require an increased sense of shame where things go wrong.”

Elsewhere in his speech, Lord Patten said he agrees with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre that much of the “noise” around the hacking scandal is “unfair and unwelcome to a great number of journalists in this country, not least in the local and regional press, who are doing an honest job without any great reward”.

He said local papers are important “not only because they hold those in power to account, but also because they fight their readers’ corner in seeking to make their lives better and their communities safer”.

And he singled out the Yorkshire Post’s ‘Give Us A Fair Deal’campaign to raise awareness of the impact of the recession on the Yorkshire and Humber region and the Enfield Independent’s ‘Don’t Carry, Don’t Kill’campaign for tougher sentences for knife crime among under 18s.

Responding to those who say that the BBC unfairly dominates the media in Britain, Patten said: “This is a particularly odd assertion given that the BBC has represented a steadily diminishing part of the broadcasting economy. From a monopoly position in 1950 to a situation today where commercial revenues across TV and radio are now at least double licence fee revenues.

“Today, if people still get most of their news from the BBC it is because they choose to do so, not because there is no alternative.”

And he claimed that even in the homes of Sky subscribers, BBC News has greater reach than Sky News.

Patten added: “Despite the BBC’s tradition of investigative journalism, it could not have paid for the information on MPs’ expenses as The Daily Telegraph did, nor pursued the hacking story at News International as remorselessly as The Guardian campaign did.

“When this hacking story broke, some suggested that we were giving it excessive coverage, as it were leading the hue and cry. But when a spot check was done on the amount of time devoted to the story by different broadcasters, it showed that both ITN and Sky were giving more time to the story, in proportion to their total time on air, than the BBC.”

In his concluding comments he made four points:

  • “Free speech is not an end in itself but a means of developing a more effective, plural, accountable, democratic society.
  • “Free speech does not excuse any/or all forms of behaviour – rights of privacy are important from a human perspective and are not simply a legal inconvenience for journalists. .
  • “Free speech is for individuals not institutions. Trust can very often be a necessary condition for us to exercise our freedoms in a plural society.
  • “It is sad that it took the News of the World to get us debating these issues. But debate them now we must and will.”

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