Monday, 3 December 2012

Leveson: slippery slopes and thin ends of wedges



The arguments against the Leveson proposals are largely of the 'thin end of the wedge' and 'slippery slope' type. They are the kind of argument presented when all else fails. They are rarely based on reason. Take 'the slippery slope'. It assumes the inevitability of a direction once a step is taken. There is no basis for this in reason. Of course we exist on a slippery slope. It applies to any decision we take. Its other half, so to speak,  is 'we need to draw a line  in the sand'. Why? The answer is usually 'else we won't know where we are'. Quite ridiculous; we are rational beings with a compass. We can consider where we are. Simply drawing a line doesn't really help much, although we often do it. Lines can be useful. Once drawn, however, we then have to consider in what circumstances we might cross it.

Take for example, confidentiality. We can hold it as a principle in medical ethics; and it is a good principle, not for its own sake but for the  protection of others from harm. But occasionally there is a conflict of duty; a duty to a patient and a duty to protect others from harm if that patient has a particular transmissible disease. Ethically, however, it isn't simply whether confidentiality should be breached, but also how. A balance has to be struck in protecting all parties.

This is probably true for all  'lines in the sand'. Under what circumstances and how could they be breached. When we observe such lines we find they are quite broad and grey rather than black against white. If we are worried about such breaches, as in the case of the Leveson proposals, there is another approach. This approach I call the separation principle. First you ask who should be able to decide whether a line can be crossed and what would be the circumstances.

A good circumstance of crossing a line would be if it can be clearly seen to be in the broader public interest. Investigative journalists make such a case often. It is not in the public interest simply to gratuitously invade a persons privacy. But it is a different matter if it is to expose the hypocrisy or corrupt behaviour of a politician. Nobody should be considered 'fair game' simply by being 'in the public eye'. The Hugh Grant's of this world are entitled to privacy. An established ethical code of practice with guidelines helps advise journalists on how to proceed. In the end it is a journalistic and editorial decision. It is not the decision of a regulator.

A regulator considers how best such a code can be applied. It can advise, encourage and foster good ethical practice and it can adjudicate when things go wrong or where there are clear breaches of the code. There is here a clear separation of function; the editorial one and the regulatory. Giving this relationship a statutory basis doesn't create interference. It simply underpins the process. It doesn't create another tier of interference . Nor is it a slippery slope or thin end of the wedge. It is simply a necessary step to give credibility to the new ethical process. There need then not be another step or slide. It doesn't engage government in the process other than to establish the regulatory framework. So is there a slope?

Yes there is a slope. It is the one the press has created and it has proved to be very slippery indeed.

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