Ethics & the end of (media) days

I was lucky enough this week to be a guest of the team from Kells at a lecture they ran in Wollongong, featuring the acclaimed Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre. The morning lecture, which went for about an hour, with more than half an hour of questions and answers was an excellent and by far the most intellectually challenging way I’ve spent a Wednesday morning.

While the concepts of the values and principles framework surrounding ethics – defined, as attributed to Socrates, as “what ought one to do” – is something I’ve read about and studied before, it isn’t until you have someone present the crystalised examples and contexts, from Plato through to Madoff, covering issues from the Trojan Horse through to the Global Financial Crisis, that it really has the penny drop.

Given the event was hosted by a law firm, it was interesting that ABC’s Fora program had recently broadcast a speech from Geoffrey Cousins on moral courage, which started with the challenge that what is legal isn’t necessarily moral (or ethical). For the various people at the event I spoke to, I’ve made things a bit easier and embedded Geoffrey Cousin’s speech below.

But getting back to Simon’s speech from this week, which I had the pleasure of seeing in person and interacting with. Simon raised the issue of what’s “right”, and the challenged the audience to be a little more bold about standing up for what’s right.

Simon related a story of how an Australian organisation committed to tackling child abuse thought they would get a better response from politicians, the media and broader society by commissioning a study into the economic effects of child sexual abuse, measured in lost productivity and the costs of treatment. Simon challenged us to be bold enough to declare that stopping child sexual abuse doesn’t need any further justification than that it isn’t right.

So how do we know what’s right? Simon covered three different tests: two old, one relatively new.

  • The first old test is the golden rule: do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. A pretty simple test, but with a subtle change of “do unto others before they do unto you”, things change pretty significantly.
  • The other older rule comes from St Augustine(?) and basically says to just ask your conscience. Of course, this depends on your upbringing to an extent, and puts into relief the importance of bring great parents.
  • The third rule is known in some places – particularly the US – as the sunshine test, where you only do something if you’d be happy for it to be on the front page of the newspaper or if your mum was to know about it in full.

Most people are aware that traditional media is facing some pretty tough choices. The day before the Ethics lecture, one of Australia’s key media companies, Fairfax, reported a massive loss of A$380M for the 2008-09 financial year. With the transition of the high-margin classified business to online environments, and the GFC and digital advertising blowing away a lot of display advertising, there are serious threats to the media and its important role in public interest and discourse.

I’m generally a fan of the concepts behind more participative, citizen journalism and the ability of the online environment to give people a voice. However, thinking about the three guidelines that help people facing ethical and moral dilemmas to decide on what is the right thing to do, it is that third aspect that would appear to have the strongest effect on behaviour, particularly since we can’t rely on the Law to guide ethical decision making.

If in 20 years the media has been scattered and decentalised, will we loose an important decision making tool and ethical compass?

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