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

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

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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

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