Jacob Mollerup, president of the Danish Association for Investigative Journalism and the Organization of News Ombudsmen, sees the hacking saga as a case in which many participants – the press, police, PCC – failed to draw the line. Instead, it was the public that finally said, "Enough!" after the vastness of the hacking was uncovered.
Mollerup notes that several press-ethics guidelines have been drafted, usually concentrating on terms such as trustworthiness and editorial integrity. He says that public interest is often regarded as justifying unethical methods, but the definition of “public interest” is left unclear. At the British tabloids, for example, it is defined to include personal lives of public figures.
According to Mollerup, extreme methods such as phone hacking may be justified in some cases, but only when dealing with issues of extreme importance. There must be integrity of motive, and such intrusions of privacy must be authorized case-by-case. In other words, using such methods to routinely fish for stories is clearly unethical.
The function of free and independent media is to hold everything and everyone else accountable – but the big question is, who should do the same for media?
Mollerup says the best way to guarantee strong ethics is by implementing mechanisms of transparency and accountability. What his organization advocates is the system of ombudsmen, which he says is simple and effective. Self-scrutiny creates a platform for openness and frank discussions.
The press needs to acknowledge the importance of self-regulation: “If the newspapers don’t take self-regulation seriously, there is a risk that others try to regulate the media,” says Mollerup, as demonstrated by the current discussions about press regulation in Britain.
Moreover, using press freedom to justify questionable methods is a harmful argument: “Every time press freedom is misused, it gives ammunition to those who want to undermine it,” says Mollerup.
But what if the only thing that matters is profits? Mollerup argues that on closer look, unethical journalism seems to be an extremely risky business model because it can provoke massive boycott campaigns or even closure of a newspaper, as in the case of News of the World.
Moreover, effective self-regulation is very cost-efficient, and many of the most profitable companies see social responsibility as part of their brand.