Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Prioritising people in nursing care.

There has been in recent years concern that care in the NHS has not been sufficiently 'patient centred', or responsive to the needs of the patient on a case basis. It has been felt in care that it as been the patient who has had to adapt to the regime of care, rather than the other way around. Putting patients at the centre of care means being responsive to their needs and supporting them through the process of health care delivery.  Patients should not become identikit sausages in a production line. The nurses body, the Nursing and Midwifery Council has responded to this challenge with a revised code of practice reflection get changes in health and social care since the previous code was published in 2008. The Code describes the professional standards of practice and behaviour for nurses and midwives. Four themes describe what nurses and midwives are expected to do: prioritise people practise effectively preserve safety, and promote professionalism and trust. The

Half measures on heat pumps

Through the "Heat and Buildings Strategy", the UK government has set out its plan to incentivise people to install low-carbon heating systems in what it calls a simple, fair, and cheap way as they come to replace their old boilers over the coming decade.  New grants of £5,000 will be available from April next year to encourage homeowners to install more efficient, low carbon heating systems – like heat pumps that do not emit carbon when used – through a new £450 million 3-year Boiler Upgrade Scheme. However, it has been widely criticised as inadequate and a strategy without a strategy.  Essentially, it will benefit those who can afford more readily to replace their boiler.   Undoubtedly, the grants will be welcome to those who plan to replace their boilers in the next three years, and it might encourage others to do so, but for too many households, it leaves them between a rock and a hard place.  There are no plans to phase out gas boilers in existing homes.  Yet, that is wha

No real commitment on climate

Actions, they say, speak louder than words.  So, when we look at the UK government's actions, we can only conclude they don't mean what they say about the environment and climate change.  Despite their claims to be leading the charge on reducing emissions, the UK government is still looking to approve new oil fields.  The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson,  has announced his support for developing the Cambo oil field and 16 other climate-destroying oil projects. Cambo is an oil field in the North Sea, west of Shetland. A company called Siccar Point has applied for a permit to drill at least 170 million barrels of oil there. If it's allowed to go ahead, it will result in the emissions equivalent of 18 coal plants running for a year.  What? Yes, 18 coal plants a year!  Today, as I write, Greenpeace is demonstrating in Downing Street against this project.  I suppose it will get the usual government dismissal and complaints about inconveniencing others.  Well, we know it won't