The missing issue: Ethics

The tragic suicide of the UK nurse who answered the 2DayFM radio show prank call has reverberated around the world.

As we have moved into the world of social media, we are now seeing a new level of abuse: witness the instant reaction of people hurling abuse at Mel Greig and Michael Christian, the two perpetrators of the prank.

The media has meanwhile raced to respond to the crisis; – maybe as an attempt to stall  moves by governments to reduce the media’s right to “self-regulation” and to shore up what they perceive as  the freedom of the press.

Over the last couple of days multiple journalists and commentators have expressed their opinions regarding both the prank call and its fallout.

In his regular column in the Sun Herald, Peter Fitzsimons makes the following comments[1]:

“But to all those – particularly the British media – who are firing vicious epithets at the two radio DJs who are the public face of that prank call, blaming them for the tragedy, please get a grip…..What, precisely, are they guilty of?… Was there malice in this call, then?  ….. This radio station was simply, to use the colloquial expression, ”taking the piss”…..  But is the real culprit a couple of DJs making a prank call?”

Mike Carlton in his opinion column in the Sydney Morning Herald on 10 December 2012 makes the following comments[2]:

“The British gutter press is expert at whipping its readers into a froth of indignation on the smallest pretext. This is exactly what is happening with this wretched business of the Australian radio prank call and the nurse who apparently committed suicide…..

“They were two young disc jockeys new to the job in a less than prime-time evening slot. Never could they have imagined their joke would get so far. They would have expected the hospital switchboard to hang up in their ears. As they said before the storm broke, they were amazed no one detected their Australian accents or, for heaven’s sake, the barking of a fake corgi……

“Goaded by the uproar, the King Edward VII Hospital chairman, Lord Glen Arthur, fired off an angry letter to Austereo, 2Day FM’s parent company, condemning the stunt as “truly appalling.” ….

“Fair enough. Yet Glenarthur should also explain why the hospital’s security system was so lax that such an amateurish call was taken seriously and, worse, why private information about such a prominent patient was so irresponsibly given out.”

The Australian Financial Review’s editorial column also on 10 December 2012 records[3]:

 “The tragic death of a London nurse on the wrong end of a prank call from 2DayFM is not cause for further regulation of the local media industry.

“The tragic result of the prank could not have been imagined and the exact circumstances of the incident are unclear at this early stage. Politicians have so far sensibly refrained from knee-jerk promises to impose extra rules on the industry as a result of it.  It would be wrong if this undeniable tragedy was used as evidence to back former judge Ray Finkelstein’s recommendations, made earlier this year, for a new media regulator which could decide what is published or broadcast.

“Such prank calls may be dopey or mindless, but the freedom to make them is bound up in the same freedom that allows a free press to make serious inquiries of important institutions and those in positions of authority.”

The CEO of Southern Cross Austereo, Rhys Holleran is reported to have said during a media briefing on the incident that the network was deeply saddened but confident the network had not broken any rules:[4]

“We’ve followed procedure … and we’re satisfied that that procedure was met,” he said.

“We’re very confident that we haven’t done anything illegal. What happened was incredibly tragic and we’re deeply saddened and we’re incredibly affected by that.”

From my perspective the underlying themes of the media comments are:

  • it wasn’t illegal;
  • there was no malicious intent;
  • the outcome could not be foreseen;
  • responsibility for the outcome does not lie with the media; and hence
  • don’t use this to limit the media.

It seems to me that though this issue, what has been conveniently left out of the discussions are the ethics involved. It’s important to consider:

  • Was it reasonable to contact a hospital to seek private information regarding a patient (irrespective of that patient’s identity)?
  • Was it reasonable to record a conversation with plans to replay that conversation on the public airways without informing the other parties they were being recorded?
  • Having got through to a nurse and obtained private information about a patient, irrespective of any possible security breaches at the hospital, was it reasonable to continue to replay that conversation on the public airways?
  • And finally, having made, in my mind, an ethical error, is it reasonable to hide behind the position “it was legal”?

There are many theories in relation to ethics and the processes and decision- making methods that people use to work through ethical dilemmas.

The following are some very high level ethical perspectives:

  • We act in our own self-interest, but we should limit our judgement and not interfere with the exercise of others’ ethical perspective (Ethical Egoism). This seems to be the general ethical model response to this issue.
  • There would be chaos if there were no laws to control the drive for self-interest, that is to say, governments are needed to control self-interest (Hobbesian).  Some media commentators have however already questioned the need for additional government controls to manage self-interest.
  • We act out of self-interest, but people are generally rational and self-limiting, that is to say people would not do things that would ultimately harm their own interests (Adam Smith).  This theory relies on an element of self-reflection and ethical understanding.  In this case there may not be sufficient self-reflecting or ethical frameworks to provide the self-limiting mechanism.
  • We act to minimise harm, we look at the impacts of our proposed actions and solutions from the viewpoint of the affected and try to do the greatest good for the greatest number (Utilitarian).  I do not imagine that the radio station had any process to consider this, and if it did, then perhaps its perspective of the greatest good related to its audience alone.
  • There should be no using others in a way that gives you a one sided benefit (Categorical).  In this case there was definitely the use of others to provide a single benefit to the radio station.
  • A meeting of the minds, good rules for society and rational people think through the results and consequences, choosing the fairest and most equitable resolution (Contractarians).  Whilst the ultimate consequence may not have been considered, the immediate consequence of breaching medical privacy of a person could have been reasonably considered.

There are other ethical framework theories, but it seems to me, that there was a lack of ethical insight in making the call to the hospital, and more importantly the decision to actually play the call on air.

It also must be remembered that this was not the first major ethical issue involving this radio station and that other radio stations  have faced ethical issues involving on-air and off-air issues involving high-profile radio presenters.

The challenge moving forward for the radio station, its management and board, the media commentators and the industry regulator is to consider the form of ethical framework that is required for the future.

If the industry is not able to provide a reliable and robust ethical construct along with the education required for presenters, producers and staff to ensure that ethical practices are followed then maybe the government needs to step in and define, regulate and actively monitor an ethical framework in the absence of appropriate levels of self-regulation by the industry.

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