If the WikiLeaks embassy cables saga that kicked off at the end of last year wasn't enough, the first month of 2011 has seen media organizations facing a whole slew of social responsibility issues. The Guardian newspaper has been breaking a major phone hacking scandal at News Corporation; a sexism case at Sky Sports in the UK has been championed by those bastions of political correctness, the UK tabloids; and the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera was identified this week by the New York Times as a major force behind the spread of riots in the Arab world. Not only this, but earlier in the month, Al Jazeera was involved in publishing the leaked 'Palestine papers' about the Middle East peace process, which immediately inflamed tensions in the region and, according to the Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair had destabilised the peace process.
Meanwhile, back at WikiLeaks, Rudolf Elmer was convicted of breaching Swiss banking secrecy laws when he handed over client information to Julian Assange, pledging to make public the confidential tax details of 2,000 individuals and companies,which he claimed revealed instances of money-laundering and large-scale illegal tax evasion. Oh, and some of the WikiLeaks supporters that attacked the websites of Mastercard, Visa and other companies last December after the firms withdrew their services from WikiLeaks were arrested. Phew! These are just some of the headline grabbers in what has been a month to remember for corporate responsibility watchers in the media sector.
Talking of which, we are also expecting to see any day now, the release of the Global Reporting Initiative's final draft Media Sector Supplement ready for a last round of public consultation. This supplement is intended to offer specialist guidance for media organizations 'measuring and reporting on the economic, environmental, social, and governance dimensions of their activities, products, and services'. Judging by the events of the last month, they'll have their work cut out.
So what then have we learnt about social responsibility in the media this past month? And how prepared will the GRI guidelines make media organizations who want to report on all this stuff?
1. The media sector might have to start thinking harder about product responsibility
There has been a gradual acceptance that media organizations have to take some regard for the impact of their content, as well as for the actual physical media they use. From protections for minors from adult content, to recycling of newspapers, there are a whole host of product responsibility issues for the media to consider. The GRI guidelines are generally suitable to cover these. But recent events suggest a shift in the conversation about the impacts of publishing controversial political content. When news organizations become complicit in political unrest and pose threats to peace, the standard response of "publish and be damned" comes under increasing scrutiny. By the same token, stories that help forge greater democracy in repressive states should be held up for praise. Organizations such as The Guardian and the New York Times have been leading the way in accounting for the positions they take on such issues with their commentary around the Embassy Cables and the Palestine Papers. The Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, also recently published an interesting commentary on this (and points 2 and 3 below) in an extract from his forthcoming book about WikiLeaks. But a serious question mark remains about whether and how media organizations should consider the social impact of their version of the news - or like tobacco companies before them, lay the responsibility squarely in the hands of the consumer.
2. News organizations are being held to higher standards for how they gather information than they hold their own sources to.
The phone hacking scandal at the UK Sunday tabloid the News of the World demonstrates the importance of news organizations subscribing to legal and ethical standards in how they generate ‘news’. Illegally accessing the private voicemails of royals, film stars and other celebrities is simply unacceptable by normal standards of journalistic ethics. The Guardian newspaper has rightly been pursuing this story over the last few years. The resignation of Andy Coulson, the Government’s Director of Communications (and former editor of the News of the World) and Ian Edmonson, the paper’s Assistant Editor, show just how significant a story this is turning out be. On the other hand, the Guardian (and other news organizations) have decided to run stories based on illegally hacked emails, and no doubt will also do so using stolen financial information and other data gleaned by dubious means by intermediaries. Although there is a difference in the public interest component of these stories, the main distinguishing factor is that in one case the news organization is doing the dirty work, and in the other a third party is and the news organization simply takes advantage of it.
This has been a common ethical position adopted by news organizations, but as organizations in other sectors have learnt to their cost, the claim that the actions of those further back in the supply chain is not their responsibility doesn’t always convince – nor does it pacify their critics. News organizations will probably need to take a closer look at their policies and practices regarding the news supply chain. And the GRI should ensure that reporting on these policies and practices is part of their guidelines.
3. The fight between transparency and privacy is only going to get nastier.
Privacy and transparency are two fundamental principles frequently at odds with one another. The events around WikiLeaks have shown that much of the momentum is towards the latter, but the arrests of Elmer and the Anonymous hackers who supported WikiLeaks, not to mention mounting pressure on Assange and the travails of the original source of the Embassy Cables leak, Bradley Manning, are a warning that the proponents of privacy (or secrecy as their rivals put it) are not going to let the balance change without a fight. Media organizations need to articulate clearly where they stand on these critical issues for their business.
4. Diversity issues affect media organizations in quite unique ways
The GRI guidance is quite clear on the need for media organizations (like all other organizations) to respond to and report on diversity issues. But the media actually has particularly acute responsibilities here because of its critical role in influencing public attitudes. So it's good to see the guidelines also cover diversity issues in media content. The Sky Sports case, which has seen one leading presenter fired and another resigning over sexist comments delivered off-air (but with the microphones still on), demonstrates just what a lightening rod the media sector can be for diversity issues. After all the presenters were off-air and would normally have expected their comments to go unreported and unheard by the public. Still, public they became and because this was a media organization and not say a bank or a real estate office, a couple of dodgy comments led to a firestorm of publicity. For Sky, sacking some star presenters isn't a bad way of advertising their commitment to diversity in such a context. But there's also a case for seeing the developments as an attempt by Sky to find a couple of scapegoats for what would appear to be something of a culture of institutionalized sexism at the organization - and not just a couple of off-message old dinosaurs.
5. Media organizations need other media organizations to make them act more responsibly.
Finally, for all the concerns about social responsibility in media organizations, the past month has also made it clearer than ever that the media plays a critical role in ensuring the accountability of powerful interests, whether those are governments, corporations .... or even media organizations. For this policing of the media by the media, we of course need plenty of plurality in the sector. Unfortunately, as far as powerful media players go, this is actually on something of a decline. And social media, for all its worth, simply doesn't have the research and reporting depth to do the core of that 'fourth estate' job as well. But that's a debate for another month.
Photo by Caro Spark. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence