Ethics? What Ethics?

COMMENT For some time now in Malaysia, numerous segments of the media evidently have increasingly cast aside any pretence whatsoever of being ethical, of, for example, providing `balanced' reports, of telling the truth.

Why has this happened, we may ask? Well, if I may apply broad strokes, in the 1980s and 1990s, Dr Mahathir (left) and his BN regime began messing around with key Malaysian institutions, including the media, concocting and tightening legal controls to muzzle the media, and deregulating the media (press and broadcasting) in such a way - through ownership - that led, instead, to greater regulation and control.

That, I think, is the first lesson we need to learn in trying to look at media and ethics - namely that we need to be aware of the wider political and economic environments that affect, indeed impinge upon, the operations of a society's institutions, including the media.

Of course the controls vary from system to system, country to country, from one period to another.

Nevertheless, an awareness, a critical understanding, of this wider environment, I believe, is crucial in any discussion on media and ethics.

With this as the wider context that would have to come into the picture at numerous junctures, let us now try and look at this problem of media and ethics through posing 4 inter-related questions.

The most basic question, I would think, is: Are the Malaysian media - assumed here to be the mainstream media of the press and broadcasting and the `new' media of the internet - ethical?

I feel the concern here isn't so much with the Malaysian media industry as a whole, but with certain segments of the industry.

Public dismay at some media

After all, the term `media' itself incorporates so many elements - government media, opposition media, alternative media, commercial media, broadcast, print, newspapers, magazines, news media, social media, old media, new media.

And more often than not, the concern seems to be with news media. In this regard, the concern, the dismay even, seems to be directed at some segments of the press and also broadcasting.

Indeed, the numerous grievances and legal actions taken against Utusan Malaysia, for example, are illustrative.

On the other hand, there are accusations also, predictably mainly from the regime's side, that the new media, the Internet media, tend to be oppositional and biased against the regime.

Strangely enough, despite these latter assertions, very little evidence has been provided to prove these allegations and, equally strange, given some of the vitriol hurled at the new media, very few cases have been brought successfully to court.

So, based on this, it does seem apparent that there are at least two versions of what constitutes `being ethical' here, one based on what may be called `professional standards', the other based on what we may call `regime standards'.
New clothes for professionalism

Indeed, for this regime, it would seem that `being professional' invariably means, at best, not criticising the regime and, at worst, running down all opposition or even alternatives to the regime's point of view, however feasible these may be.

And this, I feel, leads us on to - and partially answers the second question posed: Why are the media not ethical?

There are, of course, quite a number of reasons for this state of affairs. The first is the fact that the media we get often is a consequence of the patterns of media ownership and the types of political and legal control. In other words, it is a question of political economy.

When a regime, directly and indirectly, has oligopolistic, if not monopolistic, control over the media, invariably this has consequences, often invariably negative. I say negative because regimes, particularly authoritarian ones, are seldom benign.

The Ministry of Information's control over RTM and Media Prima's monopoly over all four of Malaysia's free-to-air commercial television stations are not coincidental.

Not having an open tender system in place in relation to the acquisition and setting up of media companies has resulted in such a situation with commercial broadcasting.

Often enough silly comparisons have been made between RTM and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Fooling no one attempt

The fact of the matter is that RTM was the outcome of a Cabinet decision while the BBC is guided by a Royal Charter that binds it to act in the public interest, for example.

It guarantees the BBC's independence. No such thing exists with RTM.

To take another example, the Chartered Institute for Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK also was established through a Royal Charter `that provides for a code of professional conduct, a process for investigating complaints, and the creation of a constitution and procedure of committees to hear cases.It also lays down the rights of any member to rebut a complaint, to be represented and to call and cross-examine witnesses. In effect, it establishes a means of regulating a profession'.
In this regard, to get back to possible/probable reasons why the media here - some if not all - are not ethical, perhaps it is because of the lack of such guidelines or what's often been mooted as a `code of ethics' for the media.

This regime has always been terribly keen on setting up a regime-regulated Media Council to purportedly oversee the formation of a Code of Ethics for the Malaysian media.

Perhaps there are some of you who would support such a move. My suggestion would be that you critically evaluate the probable motives behind such a move before you do so.

Thirdly, is the question of a more ethical media an internal, in-house, one, to be resolved within Malaysia's media organisations/ institutions?

The idea of unilateral self-regulation has been mooted by a couple of small media organisations to offset possible regime regulation.

This is fine insofar as, professionally done, it can lead to higher standards of journalism, hopefully to be emulated by others.

Prevalence of ostrich culture

The problem with this approach, however, is that it doesn't necessarily improve the overall industry.

It's a strategy akin to the strategy of the ostrich with its head buried in the sand, minding its own business and oblivious to what's going on around it.

In an environment where media organisations worship at the altar of the market and/or are subservient to political masters, the cynical ones in the industry would most likely continue doing what they do.

In short, as long as media organisations continue receiving political patronage and/or are commercially successful adopting a sensationalist form of reporting, it is quite unlikely that they would want to change their ways and replicate the ways of a more polished, ethical and professional media organisation. Especially if the latter doesn't make money.

So, does this mean that a more ethical media system can best come about through an industry-wide agreement on self-regulation?

In an ideal world, perhaps. But we don't live in an ideal world.

Many years ago,Suhakam arranged a couple of meetings with numerous stakeholders to discuss media councils and code of ethics. So the idea is somewhere out there, blowing in the wind.

One of main problems faced then, if memory serves me, is the clear disagreement not only between regime stakeholders and many other more-independent organisations, but also within media organisations, where progressive journalists were keen while the owners of senior editors were not.

Deep rooted structural woes

Hence, mooting an idea, even if it's for the umpteenth time, is fine. But implementing it, in a political and economic environment that is certainly not supportive, is another question altogether.

Hence, thinking of and even drawing up a `Code of Ethics', of course, is fine, possibly desirable even. But, really, what's the point of having such a code if no one sticks to it? And there's no way to make sure they do?

So, finally, how then do we go about trying to make the media more ethical?

Perhaps this is a question that would be best addressed by the media practitioners. While many, particularly from civil society have been critical of mainstream Malaysian media and Malaysian journalism, I believe that the problem of unethical media practices goes way beyond just particular media organisations or journalists.

To me it's a structural problem, related to wider factors such as a warped value system, an education system that preaches conformity, from primary school right through tertiary education, and a media environment that, by and large, conforms to the dictates of the market and the tyranny of the state.

ROM NAIN is a media analyst and academic who is weary of incompetent, unethical leaders and their apologists and spin doctors in the media who try to get away with murder while professing to rub shoulders with God's angels.