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Media Ethics: Is the sky falling?

Media Ethics: Is the sky falling?


Tomorrow - or later today if I find my password - I will publish this article on the Huffington Post, but here's a sneak preview: Professor Andy Miah considers why the UK Leveson Inquiry into Press Ethics should lead us to conclude that, while journalists shouldn't be hacking our phones, we should be hacking theirs.

The UK's Leveson Inquiry this week brings into focus the many debates that have taken place over the last two months about whether the British media's ethical foundation needs a radical overhaul after the apparent transgressions that have occurred through the News of the World phone hacking controversy. Many of these debates have global implications, given the nature of news syndication today; News International being among the most obvious example.

Much of the moral debate on this subject has focused on the case of Milly Dowler's family who are perhaps the most worthy victims in this situation. The knowledge of their daughter's voicemail being hacked at such a crucial time in the investigation of their daughter's disappearance amplified the trauma they experienced around Milly's death.

However, among the most crucial aspects of this debate is the way that celebrities – notably Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan – have intervened to speak on behalf of a community for which many people are unlikely to find much sympathy – the rich and famous.

One of the challenges with celebrity witnesses in any legal environment is that their creative personas often intertwine with the public's opinion about the merit of their concerns. Who didn't watch Steve Coogan's testimony and expert to hear a joke? And we got one or two. Upon noting that he saw journalists rummaging through his bins he noted that they did not look like tramps, adding “well almost”.

Equally, the reporting of celebrity testimonies occurs via the people who are the subjects of their criticisms – journalists. So, it is always risky when appealing to people with public profiles to establish the facts, especially when attempting to aid the public understanding of legal debates. In part, this is why many courts maintain a distance from media reporting, so as not to pollute the hearing with media opinion.

This isn't the first time that celebrities have questioned the intrusion of the press – the Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones wedding photos debacle between Hello and Ok! Magazines or Earl Spencer's pursuit of a European ruling on privacy are two of many more instances that have occurred over the years. Yet, the difference here is that the debate about the phone hacking case has focused more on the ethical rather than the legal changes that may be necessary to make. But, what ethical principles have been broken or which of them should more adequately be upheld?

One of the challenges in this case is that the difference between morality and ethics have been conflated. To be clear, journalists are governed by ethical codes but, in this case, it is the absence of a moral conscience that has caused more outrage, rather than just a transgression from an ethical framework. Codes of ethics compel rather than determine how people will act within a professional context. In contrast, moral convictions tend to prevail without the need for professional coercion.

This difference between morality and ethics is crucial when deciding what should be done. Journalists often operate by their own sense of morality when investigating stories and, at times, this may challenge their Editor's own sense of morality. Sometimes, this is a good thing, especially when Editors become too powerful and a newspaper loses sight of its public obligation, as may be said of News of the World. However, when the Editors and the journalists lose any degree of commonality in their sense of what is in the public interest and worthy of reporting, then we find a situation like the present case.

The public interest and respect for privacy is the standard moral tensions within debates such as this one. Journalists have claimed that there is no better way to find the truth than to listen to somebody's private messages, while the victims of hacking claim that privacy must still ensue despite their celebrity lifestyle.

There are a number of bad arguments that surround this case. It is inaccurate to claim that a person's phone messages are any great insight into truth; they are fragments of conversations at best. Even if they were helpful in determining facts, embracing such modes of practice within journalism would lead to the end of all privacy claims for all kinds of people - perhaps everyone. This would include permitting access to how journalists obtain their stories through coercion or entrapment. We would find ourselves in a situation where homes are wire tapped at will and by a range of institutions on the basis of public interest. The absence of all privacy is unlikely to create a very trusting society, as previous countries that have taken government surveillance too far have found.

Yet, the public interest argument is also disingenuous. To claim public interest over the justification for publishing stories about the sex lives of celebrities is a huge stretch of the concept. In these cases, it is commercial interests rather than public that are served, where the primary beneficiaries are media organizations, not the general public. At most, a member of the public may choose to consume a different form of leisure experience upon learning of any perceived moral transgression of the key actors, but this is hardly a greater good than the harm that may ensue for the individuals concerned, not to mention their families.

Both Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan are right that their being celebrities does not, in itself, legitimate intrusion into their private lives. There is no 'faustian pact' - as Coogan puts it - even for the celebrities who court the media. There must always be a point at which they – indeed, we – can say no to journalists and expect our privacy to be respected. An obvious example of this is reporting on the children of celebrities. Were the concept of privacy completely dead, then we would tolerate many more intrusions than is presently the case. We don't, because privacy still matters.

A second problem concerns whether or not the kind of journalists that are the focus of this conversation should be called journalists at all, as opposed to some other kind of media professional with a different code of ethics and different public expectations. Such a change in status would lead to a situation where the coverage of celebrities would occur via some form of contractual agreement, rather than free press. Importantly, this would not mean the demise of a free press, only that many of the periodicals whose work is primarily entertainment than news would lose these freedoms. I see no great loss in this regard, especially as most so-called news content derives from the work press officers and agents anyway.

There is one other further dimension to this debate that is rarely discussed, which is people's reliance on the media in an era when content is open and available. Most of us don't have time to follow proceedings in full, but today we have the opportunity to watch the full, unedited testimonies of the Leveson Inquiry witnesses without having to rely on a mediated interpretation. Today, public institutions have become news providers and our reliance on traditional media should be reduced considerably. In an era of pervasive media, we have also recreated an unmediated world.

So what is the answer to the question about how the press should be regulated? A number of ideas have been discussed from licenses for journalists to leaving things just as they are and making the present regulatory systems more effective. Some have argued that the system is perfectly fine – the journalists were caught by the system - and that any regulatory system will always be imperfect. As such, the possible loss of a free press that may ensue from tighter regulation would outweigh the possible infractions that evidently do occur within the present system.

The loss of a free press has such great implications for society that the anxieties of celebrity's losing control of their private lives is unlikely to be of any great significance in the grand scale of things. However, public laws are put in place for all kinds of people and we are asked to imagine how they would affect not just celebrities but people from any walk of life who may find themselves in a position of vulnerability, as is true of the Dowler family.


On this basis, change is necessary. Self-regulation with independent auditing is a much better way to monitor ethical practice – it works quite well in hospitals with Institutional Review Boards, for example. The press needs a much stronger internal ethical structure than is presently in place. Such boards should benefit from independent consultation from media ethicists and lawyers, whom are able to critically scrutinize day-to-day practice.

Such a system may also include, for instance, journalists having their own communications recorded in the course of their work, so as to later scrutinize their methods. If call centres monitor the calls with clients, why shouldn't journalists have their calls monitored 'for training purposes'? Journalists shouldn't be hacking our phones, we should be hacking theirs.

Smart Drugs

Smart Drugs


In advance of one event I'm involved with at the Battle of Ideas this weekend, I've written a brief article for the Independent. The title is'People should be free to take smart drugs if they choose to'. Here's the link and the text below.

People should be free to take smart drugs if they choose to

If you could take a pill that would instantly improve your memory or increase your ability to make sense of complex ideas, perhaps even make discoveries worthy of a Nobel prize, would you? What if you could enhance your capacity to assimilate new languages in a fraction of the time than would otherwise be necessary to become fluent? Answers to these questions may now become more urgent as a range of cognitive enhancements are quickly becoming available via pharmaceutical research.

Many of the early signs of these prospects arise from drugs that are presently used primarily to treat medical problems, one of the most famous of which is Ritalin. However, the candidate drugs that could enhance our cognitive abilities is endless and all we are asked to do is decide on whether or not we think their use for general enhancement rather than just therapy is a good idea.

It seems beyond question that many of the benefits of smart drugs would be valued my most people. Who wouldn’t want to make ground breaking discoveries or be able to perform better in exams? Just this week, the journal Annals of Surgery reported improved performance of doctors who use the cognitive alertness drug modafinil.

However, there are also practical reasons for why we would want to improve our cognitive ability on a day to day basis. Being able to remember where we left our keys or what we had to buy at the supermarket spring to mind. Of course, it’s unlikely that people would risk any serious long term health problems that may arise from using smart drugs, so a major obstacle to their use is being able to reduce these concerns.

After that, we may then need to consider what counts as being smarter, so as to have a better idea about what we need to enhance. Answers to this question have eluded artificial intelligence researchers for years, though we do know that there are different kinds of intelligence – logical or emotional, for example – and the improvement of each may require quite different techniques and imply quite distinct consequences. Equally, we would want to know if there were any trade offs in cognitive improvement. For instance, is advanced logical functioning detrimental to the more empathetic dimensions of our humanity?

As well, one of the big questions that follows from a society of brain enhancements is whether their use may be justified for state intervention, perhaps in trying to improve the memory of witnesses in courts of law where evidence depends on it. Alternatively, might society seek to improve the empathetic capacities of criminals so as to more effectively facilitation their rehabilitation?

There can be no doubt that all of these alterations will dramatically change who we are, the conditions of our existence and the order of things within society. No longer would a great school or good parents be such a great influence on whether or not one is able to excel in life. No longer would people who have been unable to excel as youngsters for whatever reason be restricted by this past.

Some would argue that these magic bullets to self-improvement are in fact ways of cheating ourselves, as they would rob us of the journey or process that is required to achieve great things. However, there are many things we do presently that require little effort, but which can have similar enhancing effects – such as sleeping well, drinking coffee every morning, or eating oily fish.

We don’t worry about whether these tactics compromise some sense of our own authenticity, so why should drugs be any different? Neither do we worry that they undermine some other route towards self-improvement, such as studying very hard or paying attention to what’s happening around us.

It seems to me that life is hard enough as it is and the prospect of smart drugs could improve the overall circumstances of many people. If more people have improved levels of all forms of intelligence, then we would find ourselves in a much richer society. This is also why we value education, because we believe that an enlightened mind can make a greater contribution to society and may even lead to a more enriched life. This does not mean that only formal education is valuable, but that the merit of learning is universally shared.

Smart drugs may be no different from a range of techniques that we currently employ to educate people more effectively. Of course, there is always some doubt about whether these are actually improvements. For instance, as many people like the idea of learning via an iPad as learning through a blackboard and chalk, but the really smart people realize that each has its use and that new technology does not negate the value of other methods of self-improvement.

This is why individuals should be left to make their own choice and take their best guess at trying to improve their lives. It is also why the state would be obliged to make smart drugs – which are sufficiently safe – available to all. Indeed, it could not afford to do otherwise.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

The Olympic Games

New publication in British Academy Review about new media and London 2012, thinking about what we learned from Vancouver 2010. There's a head of steam building for London RE: multiple media centres. watch this space. In case you were wondering, the image is a section of the newly approved Orbit viewing tower for London 2012 Olympic Park. I was talking about another design a few months ago called 'The Cloud' and am intrigued by the idea of writing a history of architectural designs that never reached fruition. The boundaries of an Olympic Games playground might be a nice lens through which to undertake such historical work about how we imagined the future, but I wonder how many architects would release their unsuccessful plans.

Vancouver Olympics

My latest essay for the Huffington Post, while over in Vancouver covering the Olympic Games. Over the first week of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games, British journalism has caught the attention of the global media for their attacks on the Games. The focal point has been a Guardian writer, who is working out in Canada and whose narrative has reached major media providers around the world.

Having been in Vancouver for a few days, I have already been contacted by various international journalists wanting my view on the subject and there is clear sensitivity among the organizers and the IOC over how much this narrative is dominating the coverage of these games.

But, what basis is there for the claim that Vancouver's Games could soon be seen as the 'worst in history'? ( As someone who is working as a British journalist in Vancouver, there is a need to advance a counterpoint to this view on Vancouver's Games, because it is hard to see that there is any basis whatsoever for coming to the conclusion, or even that it could be possible.

Certainly, there have been some shaky starts which have overshadowed certain components, such as the death of a Georgian athlete the day before the opening ceremony. There was also considerable concern about the lack of snow at venues, which has led to the cancellation of tickets for sports. There have also been protests around the city, notably involving disruption to the torch relay's final leg, and the lighting of the cauldron had a minor glitch.

However, none of these episodes detracts from the fact that the Olympic Games in Vancouver are delivering a vastly enjoyable experience for hundreds of thousands of people around the city and the mountain resorts. Transportation has been seamless and venues are packed every day.

There is no lack of excitement about the sports and the Victory Ceremonies venue is sold out each night for what is one of the biggest Winter Games time celebrations in history. Throughout the streets, there are huge numbers of people who are living the festival experience of the Olympic Games, unconcerned about whether they have tickets or not.

All over the city, expressions of celebration and criticism are widely apparent. For the latter in particular, Vancouver has delivered more expressions of social concern than any other recent Olympic Games. This is a victory that Vancouver, as a host city and as a community can claim, as their Games shine a light on contemporary social injustices, which the Olympic movement as a whole seeks to interrogate.

As someone who advocates critical journalism on the Olympic Games, the British media are risking their own credibility in focusing too much on the wrong kinds of issues around Vancouver.

Speaking yesterday at the International Sport Business Symposium in UBC former IOC Vice President Richard Pound gave an overview of the massive logistical challenge that is the Olympic Games. He concluded by noting that if one athlete misses their competition due to disruption, then it is disastrous. However, if a journalist misses the competition, then all hell breaks lose.

This speaks to a major challenge around the Games in terms of how it privileges media to such an extent that they can lose all perspective on their role. At an Olympic Games, the media are not merely the messenger, but a powerful arbiter of truth, the independence of which is compromised due to the formal, financial relationship they have with the IOC.

What makes an Olympic Games successful depends often on whether the media decide they're having a good experience or not. This is why so much investment and attention is given to making their experience first class. However, there is no mechanism to hold journalists accountable for their reporting, nor is there space to independently assess media experiences. The result is that a single story with relatively limited evidence to support its claims can be amplified to reach global attention. This seems to have happened with some of the British reporting.

One of the twists in this saga is how people in Vancouver are interpreting the British complaints, which are seen in the context of the fact that London 2012 Games is next. Is London trying to make Vancouver look bad in order to ensure that London's Games will be remembered as the best in history? After all, it is much easier to follow an act that has received widespread criticism than one that has been regarded to be a high standard to reach.

Regardless of the reasons, given Britain's role in the next Olympic Games delivery, its media should focus more on representing how and whether the Olympic Games of Vancouver is fulfilling its broad role as a mechanism for social change around sport participation, rather than spend time detailing all of the trivial flaws in what is an otherwise a very fluid Games.

Being able to deliver a Games at all in the wake of global economic meltdown is an achievement that many cities would not have been able to attain and, despite the controversies, medals will be won, countries will have been brought closer together through sport, and new legacies of spectator participation will have been forged through the Vancouver Olympics.

The Twitter Olympics

The Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games may soon be regarded as the Twitter Olympics. You can keep track of my own postings via articles written for the Huffington Post. The first two entries for this Games have been about the Opening Ceremony and New Media Activism. Much more to come, including a piece on doping, the Olympic Truce. In the mean time, here's some retro stimulation:

[slideshare id=2644724&doc=miah2009wearethemedia-091203154944-phpapp01]

Gene Doping

As the Vancouver 2010 Games approach, will these be a genetically modified Olympics? This essay is a reply to Friedmann, Rabin et al in Science this week.

Tactical Biopolitics

At the end of 2009, I published a review of this new book from MIT Press in ScriptEd, the Edinburgh Law School journal. A must read for all artist activist wannabes... [issuu viewmode=presentation backgroundcolor=FFFFFF showflipbtn=true documentid=100105163518-bcd5a1f845904992b39bf3201b57bf35 docname=tacticalbiopolitics username=andymiah loadinginfotext=(2009)%20Tactical%20Biopolitics%3A%20Art%2C%20Activism%20and%20Technoscience%20(book%20review) width=600 height=849 unit=px]

The Guardian Science

From March 2009, I will be writing a monthly online clolumn for the Guardian's science section, focusing on ethics and emerging technologies. I will include links to articles here. April 09: Make me a superhero / March 09: 'We're All Activists Now' / still to come: social media / life-extension / ethical culture / cosmetic surgery / climate change / synthetic biology / artificial life

International Bloggers Day for Burma (4 Oct, 2007)

Yesterday, I received this comment on my 'Something Political' post in : International Bloggers' Day for Burma on the 4th of October International bloggers are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons. These Bloggers are planning to refrain from posting to their blogs on October 4 and just put up one Banner then, underlined with the words „Free Burma!“.