Michael Williams: Reporters need the right to say 'No'

A conscience clause would allow a journalist to refuse to do anything illegal

Share
Related Topics

She had been a bright student who had trained as a journalist, believing it was somehow an honourable career. Instead, in her first job on a newspaper she was told to dress up in a skimpy outfit and pose for a stunt because she had blond hair. Such stories of newsroom bullying have become wearyingly familiar in recent years.

Hopefully, the worst excesses are now in the past as Lord Justice Leveson has shone a spotlight deep into the nasty bits of the popular press. Over the next couple of weeks, the first "Leveson generation" of young journalists will graduate from Britain's journalism schools.

Here are the Carl Bernsteins and Harold Evanses of the future. The public perception may be that the average British journalist is a foot-in-the-door merchant who would sell his sister for a News In Brief in The Sun, but this coming generation is better qualified and more ethically minded than ever.

The new generation emerging post-Leveson, is driven not by whether they can match Piers Morgan's salary, but old-fashioned virtues such as decency and obligation to the truth. The chatter now is all about accuracy, independence – and, above all, the ability to exercise their own consciences.

I hope Lord Justice Leveson is listening, because one way to arm the "Leveson generation" for an ethical future is to introduce a "conscience clause". This would be written into all reporters' contracts, allowing them to say "no" to any assignment they regarded as unethical or illegal, and would by enforced by the new regulatory body that replaces the Press Complaints Commission.

The idea is even backed by Rupert Murdoch. In a surreal exchange at Leveson in April, the mogul listened to the testimony of a News of the World reporter about "constant bullying" at the title, and asked: "Why didn't she resign?" Lord Justice Leveson intervened to say: "She probably needed a job." Murdoch then agreed that a conscience clause might be a "good idea". It has wide backing from the National Union of Journalists, MPs and media academics.

Of course, the details would need to be carefully crafted, but this may not matter much since the value, in practice, would be largely symbolic. Even if not invoked, the clause would be hugely empowering to journalists. Out of the murky soup of evidence to Leveson, here is something readily digestible and easy to administer. And there can be few proposals in front of the judge embraced jointly by the "Great Satan" Murdoch and his nemesis the NUJ.

This one, as they say, could run.

Michael Williams is Head of Media Ethics in the School of Journalism and Digital Communication at the University of Central Lancashire

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an I...

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Larry Fink, the boss of fund manager BlackRock , is among those sounding the alarm  

Not all discounts are welcome: Beware the myopia of company bosses

Ben Chu
Cilla Black lived her life in front of the lens, whether on television or her earlier pop career  

Cilla Black dead: A sad farewell to the singer who gave us a 'lorra, lorra laughs'

Gerard Gilbert
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen