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Last week I was involved in a stoush with News Limited and its spin doctors over my claim that the company’s professional conduct policy for journalists, while an excellent document in itself, was not well known or referred to by its employees. I said that many reporters employed by News Limited did not know it existed, and even more had not read it.

After CEO John Hartigan had proclaimed the policy to be at the heart of what News Limited journalists’ job,  I challenged the company to publish it widely to the public, including on the mastheads’ websites. The company has now said it will do this.

But the response to my suggestion that the code, far from being on every reporter’s lips, was low profile, was rage and firm denials. You can read the to and fro on my blog.

As a result of that exchange, I was contacted by Carolyn Varley, now a Queensland public servant, with the words “it’s not often I get to say this, but you may be interested in my masters thesis”.

Varley in 1995 researched this very question — awareness of editorial codes of ethics, using the Herald and Weekly Times, part of News Limited, as her case study.

Recently installed HWT boss Steve Harris had put considerable effort into devising a new code of conduct, and had commissioned journalism academic Sally White to help write it. The result was excellent. Ethicist Paul Chadwick (now director of editorial policies for the ABC) described it as “laudable”.

Varley, having done an extensive review of other editorial codes, described it as “the most comprehensive policy of its kind in Australia”, and she predicted that it would form the template for codes adopted more widely.

She was right. The HWT code informed the News Limited-wide code that was adopted later in the 1990s, and that Hartigan now describes as being at the heart of the company. It now applies, in theory, to all News Limited journalists.

And yet there were problems. Varley interviewed 30 members of the Herald and Weekly Times editorial staff in October and November 1994 — just one year after the code was introduced. This represented a more or less random sample of about 7% of the editorial staff at the time. What she found was disappointing, to say the least.

Her interview subjects included cadet reporters, graded reporters, subeditors, senior journalists in middle-management positions, editors and news editors, photographers and page designers. Seven respondents had been with the Herald and Weekly Times for less than one year; three had been there for more than 20 years, and the others fell in between.

Twenty four of the 30 claimed they had read the professional practice policy. Eight claimed to have read it more than once, and three said they had referred to it in the course of their work. Six said they had not read the policy, and five said they had had only a quick look or read it briefly.

But when Varley asked questions about specific parts of the code — such as “what do you think of the section dealing with plagiarism?” and “what do you think about the section dealing with interviewing children?” 22 out of the 30 could not answer.

Varley commented: “[This] does suggest they were not particularly familiar with the policy. The clauses referred to deal with situations that often arise in journalism. It appears that even the most basic sections of the policy have not been absorbed by staff.”

Only one respondent — a cadet — said she had had any training about the policy.

The same cadet voiced concerns about interpretation of the policy:

“(It uses) words like ‘normally’. When can you? When is it OK? What does normally mean? How many news stories are normal? If they are normal, would they be in the news? So my problems are in interpreting it. I think we need as an organisation to talk more about it and to be trained about it and to see how it all fits in and how we should be using it.”

And  a junior reporter who had not read the policy expressed frustration:

“I wish this damn thing had been made more public. I wish I knew what it was. A bigger fuss should have been made over it if it’s of such great importance.”

A senior reporter, who had worked with the Herald and Weekly Times for more than 10 years, expressed similar sentiments:

“I can honestly say to you that I have not seen the policy. It really hasn’t been brought to our attention, and it hasn’t been constantly enforced or anything like that. I can’t remember the document being put out.”

Varley raised, with the journalists and with Sally White and management, the question of the code being published to the public, but the idea received a cool reception. One reporter said: “I wouldn’t like raving lunatics waving it on the stairs of the Herald and Weekly Times saying ‘she did this’ — not that I live in fear that I don’t abide by any parts of it.”

Even White expressed the view that it should be for internal use, rather than used by aggrieved members of the public to bash reporters over the head.

One reporter with fewer than five years’ experience, who had not read the Herald and Weekly Times policy or the AJA code, saw it this way:

“If you are on a big story — a real big one — and you’re asked to get a photo of somebody or some quotes, you’ll use a few tricks, which, according to the code of ethics or whatever, won’t be necessarily accepted, to get that big one.”

Another person argued with the clauses dealing with interviewing children because  “of course 13-year-olds are capable of killing people”. A third person said she could see nothing wrong with using some press releases verbatim, without stating they came from public relations sources because “I thought press releases were made for us to plagiarise. Public relations people are happy to have it used exactly word-for-word.”

Varley stated in her conclusions: “Research suggests that any attempt to change attitudes and behaviour through the introduction of a code of ethics or conduct is unlikely to succeed unless the people who will be subject to the code are involved in its development and share in its ownership …  codes imposed by management are “treated with a good deal of cynicism”.

She called for more training in ethics within the company.

Varley has told me that some of the people she interviewed in 1994 are now in senior positions in News Limited.

Now, 1994 is a long time ago. Perhaps Hartigan and others would say that Varley’s findings bear no relevance to the present day.

I would say that little has changed. In fact, I would say that until the last week, awareness of the company’s internal ethical codes was lower than it was in 1994, when the HWT document at least had the merit of  novelty.

The News Limited document remains an excellent policy. What it needs is promotion, training and consistent implementation.

And the same is true in other media organisations. Those that have codes should publish them widely, including on media websites. They should discuss them internally, and provide training. And those organisations that don’t have them (including Crikey) should get them.

Peter Fray

This crisis will cut hard and deep but one day it will be over.

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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