Take a profession, any profession. Say, plumbers. It’s possible to assess plumbers on a number of criteria, including their competence, problem-solving skills, efficiency, and so on. It’s also possible to assess them on their probity.
Probity, definition: “the quality of a person who is completely honest; adherence to the highest principles and ideals”.
Synonyms: integrity, honesty, uprightness, decency, morality, rectitude, goodness, virtue, right-mindedness, trustworthiness, truthfulness, honour, honourableness, justice, fairness, equity.
Clearly, if one wishes to employ a plumber, one would want him or her to have a degree of probity, but the craft of plumbing does not, in itself, particularly offer a context in which their probity is tested or can be demonstrated. (Concerns about whether one is billed fairly may be considered to be more about the plumber’s business ethics, rather than their plumbing “ethics” if such a thing exists.)
Nevertheless, I suppose it would be possible to define a probity scale running from 0 to 100 onto which all plumbers could be placed—I guess the vast majority of them would cluster around the high end.
So, let’s consider journalists.
At one end, there are the journalists who didn’t turn a hair at hacking the mobile phone of a dead child, resulting (possibly inadvertently) in her parents obtaining comfort because, by deleting a message, the journalists allowed the parents to believe that the child was still alive. And there are other journalists who would have done the same if their stories seemed to demand it. And the managers, to whom these journalists reported, who likewise were completely indifferent to the effects that the activities of their staff might have. Just as long as the papers sold. And the boards of these newspapers which, it seems, turned blind eyes to what was going on.
Yet, I am sure that journalists have sunk, and will continue to sink, to lower depths than that.
Then, there is the multitude of hacks (no pun intended) who, whilst truly drawing the line at such behaviour as hacking phones, nevertheless are “guilty” of smearing honest members of the public and celebrities; of reporting the alleged doings of others in sensationalist, prurient and inaccurate ways; of reporting badly stories which they do not understand (science stories are obvious example here); and of failing to accord remotely reasonable standards of priority to stories.
After that lot, there are those who are just careless and/or generally incompetent. Their carelessness and ineptness could be rectified with relative ease, but they can’t be bothered, or they’re just not able: in that sense, it is their probity that is called into question rather than their cognitive abilities. Their probity “score” might be around 50.
Eventually, we come to a distressingly small group of journalists whose probity has forced them to take personal risks in the cause of seeking the truth; and who have doggedly persisted with stories despite the attack of the interested parties, such as politicians and other journalists, and the suffocating uninterest of many others.
To cite an example, Nick Davies, of the Guardian, worked to expose the nauseating activities of the gutter press—and in particular the News of the world—in a clearly dangerous “dog eat dog” context: one journalist on the trail of others. (A selection of his articles on this subject.)
Sue Lloyd-Roberts, of the BBC, was another such “campaigning journalist”. She died recently and this obituary is remarkable reading.
One wonders whether those journalists at the low end of the probity scale are really at the low end, or feel forced by the senior management to inhabit it for fear of losing their jobs. The trouble is, it doesn’t matter what self-serving reasons journalists use to justify their behaviour, it is the behaviour—and the unthinking effects on others—that counts.
In all this, the people of the UK collude—and, in many ways, justify—these hacks’ behaviour. They buy the papers. They look at the websites. It is really chilling to think that, for all we may excoriate journalists, actually the way that they are is a reflection of the way that people are. If the people all flocked to the Guardian, journalists on the Sun would have to get their act together.
We get the media we deserve. Journalists’ content is what we want to read. It reflects who we are.