The decline in media standards cannot be exaggerated

It is remarkable how media can explore the harmful effects of everything except themselves

It is remarkable how media can explore the harmful effects of everything except themselves. In the past week, you will perhaps have watched a number of television programmes, listened to various radio discussions and read several newspaper articles examining the alleged health risks posed by mobile phones. But when the danger comes from the media themselves, the energies of the industry circle to safeguard its own interests from criticism or attack, leaving the public interest unprotected.

All the time now, but with what has seemed a noticeable acceleration in recent months and weeks, the quality of human life is undermined by the breaking of new frontiers in intrusiveness, irresponsibility and voyeurism by the media - witness Haughey, Harrington, Dallaglio, RhysJones, et al. If such things occurred as the result of the activities of any other public institution, media people would be blowing whistles fit to burst.

It is customary among journalists - mindful of the watchfulness of their employers - to pretend that talk of declining media standards is exaggerated. But it is not possible to exaggerate. Even the most basic levels of human decency are no longer available to many of those who today come under scrutiny from the media. Even rudimentary scruples about checking facts and information are now, in certain areas, defunct. Media are increasingly about the exploitation of grief and grievance. Not only is it now permissible to intrude on the private lives of people who have done nothing to deserve this, but it is enough, it seems, that one party in a personal dispute has said something for this to be worthy of publication. In other areas - politics, business, etc - it is customary to delay publication of information until (a) it has been checked and verified and (b) other involved parties have been asked for their side of the story.

In most matters, this first rule is never broken, for obvious reasons, and only in cases of the most extreme and urgent public interest is the second rule relaxed. Now, it appears, in matters of the most urgent privacy, these rules no longer apply, since by virtue of the very sensitivity of the matters in question, and because the only avenues of redress would involve even greater intrusion, the damaged parties will be unlikely to mount a challenge. All this occurs virtually without controversy and is increasingly unashamed of itself.


This is not simply an issue of tabloid excess, but extends to every branch of the national media, including the State-funded broadcasting station and the self-styled "quality" newspapers. No Irish newspaper can claim to stand aloof. The new agenda is being dictated from the bottom and all are caught in its currents. Not only do the supposed "quality" newspapers not object to this debasement of their industry and our profession, but most are now itching to get down in the gutter with the worst of them. Usually, all it takes is the concoction of some spurious "public interest dimension" to justify going where they would or could not go before.

It is all, of course, about money, which translates as the interest of the media controllers who employ people passing as journalists to do their dirty work. There was a time when the journalistic profession was protected from the avarice of the industry in which it operated. Journalists could say no, in the same way as doctors can say no to if asked to do things forbidden by the ethics of their profession. But this safeguard has long since been eroded, as managements and union representatives become increasingly indistinguishable in the smoke-filled rooms where the mutually beneficial deals are hammered out.

The National Union of Journalists' Code of Conduct, a document rapidly acquiring similar unintended satirical dimensions to the Irish Constitution, states, among other principles, that "a journalist shall strive to ensure that the information he/she disseminates is fair and accurate, avoid the expression of comment and conjecture as established fact and falsification by distortion, selection or misrepresentation".

Nowadays, the chief criterion when it comes to considering the publication of material appears to be not whether it is true, but whether it can be published with impunity. If there is a good chance that titillating material can be published without consequences for those who publish it, its truth or otherwise becomes irrelevant. The NUJ Code of Conduct also states: "Subject to the justification by over-riding considerations of public interest, a journalist shall do nothing which entails intrusion into private grief and distress". Anyone who tried to live by this principle in most sections of the Irish media today would probably find him/herself permanently on the graveyard shift.

No process of redress is available to either society or the individual in respect of these developments. There is a procedure by which one NUJ member can seek to indict another if a breach of the code is alleged, but the main sanction this offers - expulsion from the union - has never been imposed. These days, a journalist who sought to invoke questions of ethics or standards would be dismissed as a crank and treated as a pariah.

THE dangers in all this are not confined to the hurt and damage to people immediately affected. Because media are now the principal carriers of societal values, and as such bear a responsibility increasing in inverse proportion to the capacity to bear it, the consequences are far more serious. We are dealing with an entirely new phenomenon, and its detrimental consequences are incalculable from where we stand now, at the top of the slippery slope. Nor is it just a matter of the decline of "standards". There is a sense, listening to what debate there has been on this subject, that what should worry us here are largely matters of taste and decorum. It is true that the spectacle of voyeur journalism is not edifying, but this may be a relatively minor concern relative to the cultural meltdown being precipitated.

One of the more immediate casualties will be the quality of trust between human beings. Much of the raw material of this new media culture derives from the willingness of one or other party in an intimate relationship to break the confidences of that relationship by going public about its most private, and therefore sacred, aspects and moments. Who can now enter into intimacy without being conscious of this change? It is customary for people developing relationships to share with one another their thoughts, dreams, experiences and secrets, but in future, this will only be advisable if (a) they are both certain the relationship will endure and (b) there is no possibility of either party becoming famous. No couple setting out to get to know one another can any longer be sure that it is safe to say anything they would not wish to read on the front page of The Star.