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Through the Media Minefield

Monday, 1 August 2011  | Penny Mulvey

The revelations relating to the invasive use of phone hacking by News of the World to generate ongoing ‘exclusive’ stories and subsequent political and public responses have led to many questions about media ethics.

While this particular matter has been disturbing and could have a significant long-term impact on global media ownership, the basic premise is certainly not new.

Governments and individuals have been pointing the finger at the news media for some time and, dare I say it, crying wolf. Journalists walk a fine line… by necessity. Sure, they get things wrong. They dig up dirt. They don’t always research the facts to our satisfaction. They sensationalise. They trivialise. They turn people’s suffering into headlines. They move quickly onto the next big thing. They appear to move as a pack.

However, they also provide a mirror to society. Without an open media we become a North Korea, a Burma (or Myanmar) or a China. Sometimes journalists are killed because of their willingness to seek out the truth. Journalism at its best leads to Royal Commissions. It exposes us to and prods governments, reminding them of their accountability and responsibility.

Think of the stories around the world we have learnt because of journalism. Egypt, Libya and the uprisings throughout the Middle East earlier this year was brought to the attention of world media because of single individuals who took amazing risks via pirate reporting online. The appalling events in the Horn of Africa are finally getting world coverage because of a few persistent individuals and agencies.

Thanks to the internet, anyone can be a photo journalist, videoing stories, writing and voicing copy, and opinion and posting it online. We are a rapacious audience consuming all in our wake – be it information, entertainment, gossip, or slander.

When questioned at the National Press Club on the unfolding events surrounding News of the World, Prime Minister Julia Gillard told the gathering of political media hounds, "Don’t write crap." That could be true; but what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did question time in our political houses become an exercise in schoolyard bullying and banter because of the media or did the media start treating politicians as objects of entertainment because of their performances on the floor of the house?

What about our responsibility as consumers? Has our desire for more gossip, more controversy, more celebrity worship fuelled the desire by some media outlets to move or even cross that ‘fine line’? When did we become more interested in our leaders’ falling over or getting a pie/shoe in the face than in the policies they are debating on our behalf?

There are a number of reasons we have come to the place of phone hacking personal phones for the purposes of ‘news’. Reputable news media is having to find new ways to remain competitive. We find our broadsheets are moving toward an opinion style of news, presenting polarising accounts and encouraging more strident responses from their readership.

We are experiencing serious information overload. The number of both reputable and less reputable news sources we can follow online is increasing exponentially. How does the more informed consumer of news check sources and facts when there are so many potential sources out there?

The public – you and me – increasingly sceptical of what we read, hear and watch, are cynical and dismissive. Often we go for the jugular. Look at the letters to the editor, talkback radio and online forums, the words are often personally attacking, strident, aggressive and polarising. The space for nuance, reflection and considered response is diminishing.

For Christians trying to engage in the public space, this is difficult. We don’t want to 'do a Tony Abbott' and (apparently) obstruct for the sake of it. Much of our understanding of the world is nuanced. It is not black-and-white. We do not want to personally attack those who have a different view to our own, instead we want to engage in reasoned and thoughtful discussion. How do we ensure our voice can be heard in this noisy, crowded, divided media?

I believe we need to be consistent with our message. We need to be relevant. We need to hold fast to our personal ethics. We need to take criticism on the chin and be willing to look at ourselves with a more critical eye.

The Christian voice, in all its diversity, still holds currency in our world.

Penny Mulvey is a former journalist, co-director of Positive Media Pty Ltd, a Melbourne-based media consultancy specialising in media training and risk management for the not-for-profit and education sectors and Director of the Communications and Media Services Unit, UCA Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.




1.  In TV/movie portrayals of journalists such as in 'State of Play', journalists are depicted as being deceptive in order to get access to information and break 'the big story'. Do the 'ends justify the means'? Are small-scale deceptions ethically permissable for journalists (or anyone?) in pursuit of uncovering matters of public concern?

2.  See also the article by Gordon Preece,
Theology and Wikileaks. Do you have a developed theology or ethic of disclosure or truth-telling? Is everyone 'owed the truth' on every matter? Are there exceptions in everyday life or in public life?

3. The phone hacking practice at News of the World was apparently widely known among journalists and editors. When a corrupt practice becomes customary and expected, how can an individual Christian respond to 'systemic sin'? Are churches prepared to deal with these kinds of work situations of its members?

4. See also the article by Ian Packer,
A Call to Civility. Do you agree that 'civil society' is becoming less civil? Is this reflected in the media? What about on-line commentary and reader commenting? Can Christians make a helpful contribution here?

5. The Gospel is public 'good news'. Are there lessons from understanding and communicating the gospel for journalists?


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