I give the odd talk to journalism students on ethics and I always start with the “golden rule” which is the basis of most world religions – and, I would say, journalistic ethics.
Treat others as you would expect to be treated yourself.
I also suggest that you don’t do anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable defending publicly before, say, a judicial inquiry.
After you’ve cleared both those hurdles, then make sure you don’t do anything which is going to lead to you being successfully sued and/or put in prison.
Buzzfeed’s publication of the Trump dossier fails in my view on the first of these grounds.
The journalistic thing to do with it is to put the allegations in detail to the Trump team and make efforts to verify them.
You don’t publish horrendously defamatory allegations based on one un-named source.
The speed with which Buzzfeed followed up the initial CNN report on this affair yesterday suggests Trump was given little time to respond.
CNN said that a two-page synopsis of the allegations had been given to Trump and Obama, but it did not go into the details.
The impression Buzzfeed’s publication was hurried is suggested by this line in its report: “The Trump administration’s transition team did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.”
That speed of publication will be difficult to justify in court if Trump does opt to sue Buzzfeed (although, under the US First Amendment – Buzzfeed may believe it is covered legally).
Some 35-pages of detailed allegations will need days, if not weeks, to investigate and respond to.
Trump may be a monster, but he also has a family who will have been hurt by the allegations in the Buzzfeed dossier. If they prove to be fabrications then that is again difficult to justify.
Several UK publications have already repeated the most sordid details of the document. Given Trump’s record for litigiousness I would suggest this is unwise, even if they are accompanied by strong denials.
There is no safety in numbers when it comes to libel and, if the most damaging details prove to be untrue I would expect Trump will sue everyone who has repeated them.
Pictures: Reuters/Mike Segar