This Is About Ethics In Spy Games Journalism

The  Intercept journalist James Risen has published a fascinating retrospective on his time covering intelligence and security for the New York Times. He discusses how many of his stories exposing CIA wrong-doing during the Bush Administration were spiked by editors who nevertheless gave front-page coverage to stories that appeared to confirm the existence of the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction that were the pretext for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He also writes about his court appearances in 2014 and 2015 when the Obama Administration threatened him with imprisonment for not revealing confidential sources in stories about the CIA’s activities in Iran.

NYU Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen says this was “the most important thing published about journalism today.” Risen’s piece made me think of this tweet from the last days of 2017:

Risen’s account of when and why some of his stories were spiked reminded me of the wonderful ‘Road To Damascus‘ episode from Season 2 of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. It deals with the story of how the CIA recruited a double-agent, how that fact was leaked to journalist Tim Weiner, and how the reporting of that story in the New York Times probably caused the death of that double-agent. It was one of the most compelling things I listened to in 2017.

The Moral Demands of Free Speech

In my earlier post, I wrote:

And perhaps students, at the cutting edge of culture and knowledge, have a greater and particular duty than the rest of us? …No Platform is the political equivalent of fly-tipping.  Rather than dealing once and for all with the unpleasant rubbish, the policy causes the mess to be dumped elsewhere.

There is a coda to this which I think is important to acknowledge.

If we compare No Platform to fly-tipping, then it follows that that the task of debating reactionaries is an unpleasant experience.

If we ask trans* activists (or feminists, or members of a marginalised group) to debate those who have disparaged them, we should at least acknowledge the unpleasantness of the task. Continue reading “The Moral Demands of Free Speech”

Our humanity drowns in the Mediterranean

Should the EU act to save illegal immigrants from drowning in the Mediterranean? Superficially, this question sounds a bit like one of those dilemmas presented by moral philosophers: do you switch the path of the runaway train so it kills one old man instead of a family of six?

But in this case, the question is not a like-for-like, life-for-life comparison. Instead, it boils down to whether we

  1. save the lives of dozens, or perhaps hundreds of illegal immigrants; or
  2. try to save a few million Euros of costs incurred by the Italian navy

… and I suppose, a few million more Euros caused by the inconvenience of being stuck with a boat-load of Africans without identity documents.

Students in ‘Introduction to Ethics’ seminars should not find this example particularly troubling. Since we are not weighing up human lives, a few humane heuristics will see us through. One of those is that if its a choice between people and money, you save the lives. When confronted with someone in clear and present danger, and the power to save them, we should not sit on our hands and watch them drown.

Really, what is so hard about that? Continue reading “Our humanity drowns in the Mediterranean”

A modest proposal to improve the tabloid press a notch

Alan Hemming has been murdered in Syria. What a disgusting, inhumane act.

Few of us have much faith in the tabloids to show much restraint in these situations.

https://twitter.com/JustinMcKeating/status/518169950675300352

However, Stig Abel, Managing Editor at The Sun, says his paper will not glorify the killing and will instead focus on celebrating the life of a kind and decent man.

Continue reading “A modest proposal to improve the tabloid press a notch”

On the killing of children

The news is hideous. 298 people died when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian separatists. Meanwhile, almost as many people have been killed in Gaza by Israeli air strikes, in response to Hamas firing rockets into Israel.

In both cases, the news reports emphasise the number of children killed. It’s a common journalistic practice that we take for granted, which is actually quite curious.

What is being communicated? Is it that a child’s death is somehow more tragic, because they have not had a chance to properly experience life? If so, what about all the dead adults who have still not achieved their potential?

Continue reading “On the killing of children”

Thoughts on Syria

I have yet to post anything on Syria, and what the international response should be to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. This omission is mainly because I was away when the House of Commons voted on whether to join in with any military action, and I missed all the debates over the morality of intervention. By the time I began consuming media again after my time in a communications blind spot, the conversation had become about whether David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s political fortunes had been helped or hindered by the parliamentary vote. I was coming to the issue with fresh eyes and ears, and such parochial analysis felt incredibly crass and wholly beside the point.

For the past ten days, there has been much discussion about how our collective democratic experience of the Iraq war in 2003 has affected our political judgements a decade later. Clearly the sense of betrayal that many of us felt back then still remains. The brutal aftermath in Iraq, and our lengthy, corrosive presence in Afghanistan has made everyone wary of more military action in the Middle East. Continue reading “Thoughts on Syria”

Press regulation and the Internet's "ethical vacuum"

Following the Royal Charter announcement earlier this week, there has been much concern over how the new system for press regulation will affect bloggers.  English PEN expressed concerns about this immediately after the Leveson Report was published.  On Labour List, Mark Fergerson called the Internet ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ and in the Guardian, Emily Bell said the Royal Charter was ‘illiterate‘ about the Internet.  Since this problem arises from the lack of discussion about the Internet in the Leveson Report, it is worth revisiting that document to see what Leveson actually said.

It is technically wrong to say that Leveson only devotes one page to the Internet in his entire 2,000 page report.  In Volume I, pages 164 to 178 are given over to describing part of the online publishing ecosystem – Huffington Post, Popbitch, and Guido Fawkes.  However, there are only five paragraphs of actual analysis on the Internet, on pages 736-37 (Volume II).  Leveson says:

Many editors and commentators have argued that the burgeoning of the internet is likely to render irrelevant much of the work of the Inquiry even assuming that it has not already done so. If, for example, celebrity X’s privacy is violated online, then the metaphorical cat is well out of the bag, and there is no reason why open season should not exist in the printed media. …

In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. … the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross miischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.

The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct.

This, in a nutshell, is the justification of focusing on regulating the tradition print media, and not on the wider publishing ecosystem.  Superficially, Lord Justice Leveson’s reasoning seems persuasive, but I think he mistakes precisely what ‘freedom of the press’ actually is.  Writing in the New Statesman last July (i.e. before Leveson reported), legal blogger David Allen Green explained the term:

The “press” to which it refers is often identified by many in England with the big-P Press of Fleet Street: the professional journalists who have “press cards” and go along to “press awards” …  But this may not be the best way of understanding the term.  In fact, the expression “freedom of the press” significantly predates the existence of the modern newspaper industry, which was largely a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead, the expression “freedom of the press” came out of the great age of pamphleteering and protest which occurred during and after the civil wars in Britain of the mid-1600s…. In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.

So perhaps Leveson is wrong to suggest that bloggers and the Internet exist in an ‘ethical vacuum’.  The act of publishing what you wish, without interference, is inately a ethical act, excercising moral rights, that is available to everyone.  Its wrong to create a two-tier ethical system, with bloggers and print journalists on different planes.  And it is wrong to create enshire a two-tier regulatory system in law, too.

Press Regulation: Grant us serenity

My Nan had a prayer blue-tacked to her fridge.  It is by It is by Reinhold Neibuhr:

Dear Lord,
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

We would do well to remember this in the debate over press regulation.

I think a great deal of the motivation of politicians and campaigners to impose regulation on the press comes from a hatred of its hackery, rather than phone hacking. Shoddy reporting, blatant ideological propaganda, and quotes taken out of context in order to misrepresent and sensationalise. Continue reading “Press Regulation: Grant us serenity”

Do Neanderthals have human rights

Rosalind English asks: If science was able to resurrect Neanderthals, would they have human rights?

I think yes, due to the likely way in which such a resurrection would come about.

Consider the way in which gene enhancement techniques will work, when scientists perfect their methods. They will fertilise an egg by means of IVF, and then test the DNA of the petri-dish embryo for whatever it is they are concerned about. They will isolate undesirable genes (such as, a predilection for cancer, green eyes, low IQ, &ct) and replace them with desirable genes (cancer resilience, blue eyes, high IQ, lizard skin, &ct). Then they will put the resulting embryo back into a womb, in the expectation a baby will grow as a result. Such a child (hereafter referred to as an Enhanced baby) will undoubtedly be considered to have human rights… even if a portion of its DNA is from elsewhere in nature. Continue reading “Do Neanderthals have human rights”

The Incompleteness of the Abortion Debate

Mehdi Hasan has provoked a big online debate about abortion, after publishing a column in the New Statesman on whether abortion is a Left/Right issue in politics. Mehdi says that although the Left is usually identified with the pro-choice* argument and the Right with pro-life*, the arguments deployed are (in his view) the opposite of what the Left and Right usually deploy. The Left use the language of individualism and choice, while the Right use the language of vulnerability and equality.

This article sparked a furious online debate about the central issue – Kenan Malik has an excellent pro-choice rejoinder to Hasan’s piece.  There has also been a meta-debate about whether it was even possible to have a reasoned debate about the issue. I was taken with Hopi Sen’s analysis, comparing what a person thinks they said with what people on the opposing side actually hear (see these amusing stanzas for a shortened version).

I tend to think of the central question as a Devil’s Alternative type question. Whatever you choose, the outcome is bad. Trying to devise rules – legal or ethical – for a Devil’s Alternative problem seems futile. Is abortion right? is a trick question: The stuff of utilitarian philosophy lectures and episodes of 24, where you try to work out the course of action that causes least hurt… Knowing full well that any choice you make leads to permenant unpleasant consequences. Perhaps the only way out of the mire is to punt on the central ethical question, declaring it essentially incomplete in Gödel‘s sense: we are not equipped to process such a question properly. It is undecidable. A paradox that exposes the limits of our language and ethical structures. Continue reading “The Incompleteness of the Abortion Debate”