It began well. I walked out of the airport to sunshine, a light breeze and a temperature of 18 degrees Celsius. For the five days of the annual conference of the Organization of Ombudsmen in Copenhagen, the temperature was glorious, rendering redundant all the kilos of sweaters and scarves I had taken along. “You’ve come during the only five days that this city gets sun,” one Danish host told the 40-odd media experts, ombudsmen and readers’ editors who attended from around the world, on the last day.
The digital Challenge
A session on multiplatform newsrooms thew up issues that will increasingly become relevant in India. Around the world, news organisations are delivering content via multiple platforms. TV is no longer the only platform providing real-time news. Websites of newspapers are also doing this and are increasingly incorporating video elements. Both the speed of production and the quantity of what is being produced is increasing. At the same time, news outlets need to decide how they will deal with leads and rumours emanating from the social media.
All this makes maintaining rigour and ethical standards that much more challenging and complicates the job of the ombudsman or readers’ editor but, hearteningly for the participants, also makes it more relevant.
Taking off from the phone hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News International and the Leveson Inquiry, which is looking into that and other ethical violations by the UK media, was a discussion on whether self-regulation had failed there. At a time when the Indian government and judiciary are showing signs of wanting to bring in curbs on the media, this discussion was illuminating.
Steve Barnett, a professor at the University of Westminster, who had made a presentation to the Leveson Inquiry, argued that self-regulation in the UK had indeed failed, citing a series of flagrant ethical violations by his country’s tabloids. The issue was not just one of phone hacking, he said, but of more widespread corrupt practices.
His argument is available online, on the Leveson Inquiry site, under the heading ‘Supporting a free press and high standards — approaches to regulation’, as are those of other experts who made presentations.
I discovered the existence of imediaethics.org, a New York-based non-profit group, founded and headed by Rhonda Shearer, one of the participants. It operates like an independent ombudsman, investigating complaints about the violation of ethical principles by media organisations around the world. Its website lists all the complaints it has investigated, categorising them under headings such as “fake quotes”, “bad taste” and “invasion of privacy.”
The site is an eye-opener: I was amazed by how many respected organisations were found wanting. If readers in this country have details about Indian or other news outlets that have not responded to their complaints, they can submit their entries to imediaethics.org.
Friends and foes
At the closing dinner, after the participants had wiped their dessert plates clean, the Danish contingent broke into song, putting pressure on everyone else to follow suit. I would have given the award for the best voice to a Readers’ Editor from Mexico. But for creativity, the award would have had to go to a Dutchman, who adapted Hound Dog — the ditty made famous by Elvis Presley — to the occasion: “You ain’t nothing but an ombudsman. Cryin’ all the time. And you ain’t no friend of mine.”
(This column will be back on July 8)