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

Ian Duncan-Smith says he wants to make those on benefits 'better people'!

By any account, the government's austerity strategy is utilitarian. It justifies its approach by the presumed potential ends. It's objective is to cut the deficit, but it has also adopted another objective which is specifically targeted. It seeks to drive people off benefits and 'back to work'.  The two together are toxic to the poorest in society. Those least able to cope are the most affected by the cuts in benefits and the loss of services. It is the coupling of these two strategic aims that make their policies ethically questionable. For, by combining the two, slashing the value of benefits to make budget savings while also changing the benefits system, the highest burden falls on a specific group, those dependent on benefits. For the greater good of the majority, a minority group, those on benefits, are being sacrificed; sacrificed on the altar of austerity. And they are being sacrificed in part so that others may be spared. Utilitarian ethics considers the ba

His way or none? Why I can't vote for Jeremy

There is an assumption that all would be well with the Labour Party if people hadn't expressed their genuine concern with what they consider the inadequacies of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. If only, it is said, the Parliamentary Labour Party and his Shadow Cabinet had supported him, instead of undermining him, all would have been fine. If they had been quiet and towed the line, then the party would not have been in the mess it is in. So, should they have stayed silent, or speak of their concerns? There comes a point when the cost of staying silent outweighs the cost of speaking out. This is a judgment. Many call it a coup by the PLP. They paint a picture of a right-wing PLP out of touch with the membership.  This is the narrative of the Corbyn camp. But Jeremy Corbyn, over the decades he has been in politics, showed the way.  It was Jeremy Corbyn who opposed almost all Labour leaders and rarely held back from speaking out, or voting time and again against the party line. As

Mr Duncan-Smith offers a disingenuous and divisive comparison

Some time ago, actually it was a long time ago when I was in my early teens, someone close to me bought a table. It was an early flat pack variety. It came with a top and four legs. He followed the instructions to the letter screwing the legs into the top. But when he had completed it the table wobbled. One leg he explained was shorter than the other three; so he sawed a bit from each of the other legs. The table wobbled. One leg, he explained, was longer than the other three. So, he sawed a bit off. The table wobbled. He went on cutting the legs, but the table continued to wobble. Cut, cut, cut! By this time he had convinced himself there was no alternative to it.  He ended up with a very low table indeed, supported by four very stumpy legs and a bit of cardboard placed under one of them to stop it wobbling on the uneven floor.  Mr Duncan-Smith argues that we need a 1% cap on benefits to be 'fair to average earners'. Average  earners have seen their incomes rise by less tha