Here is a challenge to News Limited CEO John Hartigan. Publish the News Limited Code of Professional Conduct. Not only internally, where it can be found buried on the staff intranet, but publicly, clearly linked from all News Limited’s mastheads and available in hard copy to anyone who asks.

And if you don’t publish it, Crikey will.

This challenge arises from a dust up I have been having with the News Limited spin doctor, Greg Baxter. (Not the first.)

Last Friday, Hartigan issued a public statement about the News of the World scandal, in which he said that unethical and immoral practices are not tolerated in the Australian News Corporation mastheads. He referred to the News Limited Code of Professional Conduct, which, he said, was “the guiding principle to everything we do”.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

I wrote in response that many News Limited journalists in Australia did not even know there was such a code, and that to suggest it lay at the heart of how they understood their jobs was “pure fiction”.

Well, following that story being published, Baxter emailed Crikey as follows:

I have no doubt Margaret Simons has a mate somewhere in News who claims never to have seen our Code of Conduct, therefore allowing her to assert that most of our people have never seen it, never been encouraged to read it and don’t abide by it. Etc etc.

The code has been published and updated twice in the past 5 years as far as I know and hard copies distributed to all newsrooms. It is also available on the intranets of each of our major divisions. It is included in induction packs when we employ staff, including journalists of 15 minutes or 50 years’ experience.

Hartigan made two points about the code in his note to staff. One, his personal belief is that the code should guide everything we do. If it doesn’t, it should. And, implicit in that is a warning to any journalist who has left the code unread in the bottom of a drawer. Take it out, read it and abide by it.

As for Margaret’s reference to Jay Rosen’s tweet, would any decent media outlet allow a reference like this to be included in a story in this way, gratuitous, unchecked, without elaboration, explanation or qualification? Clearly Crikey works to different standards. If Crikey has a code of conduct please send it to us.

Regards,

Greg Baxter| Director, Corporate Affairs

I posted that on my blog, together with a response. I also did a call out to News Limited journalists past and present, asking them to email, comment or Tweet their experiences (if any) with the code. See my blog here and here for the results. Still collecting them. Emails received in confidence at margaret@margaretsimons.com.au.

To sum up, 10 responses so far in a mix of comments threads, twitter DMs and emails, covering reporters who have worked or are still working at community newspapers,  metropolitan daily tabloids and The Australian. Of these, only one (from The Courier-Mail) said they had been given a copy of the code and had read it.

Meanwhile on Twitter, outsiders commented that most corporations require new employees to sign off on major corporate policies as part of the induction process. Nothing like that at News Limited, so far as the editorial Code of Professional Conduct goes in any case.

But the pointier issue is that the punters — the audience with whom News Limited supposedly cultivates a relationship of trust — cannot get a copy of the code. It is not published, other than internally. A Google turns up, not the code itself but, in the top six results, my reporting on its invisibility.

This cannot be good for News Limited.

So please, Mr Hartigan. Publish it, and send us the link. Make it easy for your readers to find. We will help you promote it.

And if you can’t or won’t do it, we are happy to help.

Meanwhile, the News of the World crisis rolls on, with up to nine journalists facing arrest, the announcement of public inquiries, and Rupert Murdoch’s closest adviser Les Hinton likely to face questioning over what he knew and when he knew it.

Meanwhile, furious News of the World journalists who have lost their jobs apparently used the crossword in the last edition to take out their fury against the bosses.

Rupert Murdoch himself has flown to London, and everyone agrees that this is only the beginning.

The focus is likely to shift away from News International over the next week, as other news companies and mastheads are caught in the web. This affair is likely to be a tipping point in the history of media and politics, at least in the United Kingdom but probably more widely.

Locally, The Australian’s Media section gave the scandal considerable straight-shooting coverage and commentary today, which is a relief given the partisan flavour that section has taken on other issues affecting the corporate parent in recent times.

True, the coverage did not address the question of local relevance, nor were there any calls for the sacking of favoured Murdoch lieutenant Rebekah Brooks. There were also suggestions, in Mark Day’s column and elsewhere, of a “poor us” regret that critics of News International were taking the opportunity to beat up on them.

Over the past few days, a few commentators have been quick to state that ethical breaches such as paying police or phone hacking would not happen in Australia.

I think that is probably right for the most part, but I would not be as confident as some appear to be.

One of the reasons it would probably not happen here is precisely because of the Murdoch press’s undoubted dominance, meaning that we don’t have the red-hot competition for yarns that exists on Fleet Street.

And I think it is true that for the most part, Australian journalists would pull up short of bribery and illegal behaviour.

If one was looking for ethical misbehaviour in Australia one would look first, not to newspapers but to tabloid television current affairs.

But are we really justified in saying that it could not happen? I think not. And I suspect several news editors and producers are a bit nervous.

In the current climate, it would take only one instance of a police officer or other public official being paid for information, or a single instance of a phone or email account being hacked by or on behalf of a media organisation, and we would see public inquiries and fury being unleashed here, too.

The Gillard government, and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy in particular are clearly in just the right mood to take on News Limited and other media.

Are we really confident that nobody will give them a reason to do so?