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29 November 2012

Leveson – ethics without morality?

Why is it that, the more freedoms we are given, the more laws we seem to need? The Leveson Inquiry and the accompanying public debate has not got to the root of this core problem: you won't improve ethics if you ignore morality. Recommendations on the future of press regulation are evidently needed and the focus of much attention, after all, the press is interested in what concerns their future.

But it is vitally important to step back from the frenzy surrounding the media scandals, corruption, inquiry and now the report and ask more foundational questions about the place of ethics in our media. This crisis echoes a broader crisis of public leadership across all of society, whether it's politics, banking, finance, even our education system. Albert Camus once observed that: "A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world." There is a lot of talk about ethics in public life, but little acknowledgement that ethics flow from a moral framework. If we don't accept the indispensability of morality, no number of new laws and regulators will make men and women good.

The Leveson Inquiry has exposed how truth and transparency are vital for a healthy society – and how our media has shown a frequent disregard for its value. Too often we seem to be trying to cultivate public ethics in a vacuum: how can we expect honesty without a high regard for truth? It's (literally) impossible to have honesty in the media without having truth as an objective for reporting. With media outlets competing for power and profits, each one seeks to present its own worldview at the expense of the other. Fuelled by a pervasive myth of secular neutrality, the outcome is a subtle but apparent manipulation of facts and reality to suit a particular agenda – all of which has the effect of reducing public trust.

A free and open press is a vital defence for our democracy, and we have much to be thankful for with our media. But the ruling classes are reluctant to engage with the Judaeo-Christian moral framework that has traditionally informed our ethics, and so the liberal basis of our media will increasingly become a liberal bias.

In casting off all restraint as 'old-fashioned moralising' we seem to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing – and our media is clearly not immune to this. The Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has wisely remarked: "We need to relearn the moral disciplines of freedom." This is an opportunity we must take to move beyond doing what works and what people want, to doing what is right.

The Leveson Inquiry has focused on the 'how' of the media – how it operates and behaves. There now needs to be a public debate about the 'what' of the media – what it is, what it does and what it produces. Broader cultural forces have reduced the focus of much journalism to appealing to the very basest desires of human nature: everything that is important is rendered trivial, and everything that is trivial is rendered important. It is an obsession with the cult of celebrity and it comes at the expense of a common identity and a common good.

The irony is that many people go into journalism with a strong sense of morality and a desire to seek truth, only to find themselves under pressure to sacrifice their values to get a good story. Unless this golden opportunity is seized to address the root problem there will be more and more excuses provided to justify a slow but sure encroachment of the state into our media.

The palpable lack of moral leadership in the media can be addressed by a mature engagement with the 'M-word' and by taking some practical steps. We could do worse than to re-visit the original, guiding principles of the BBC developed by Lord Reith. These principles of an equal consideration of all viewpoints, probity, universality and a commitment to public service enabled the corporation to establish itself as a trusted brand across the globe. Sadly, this position has been tainted by poor journalism and even poorer management of late, but all is not lost. Our current crisis offers a great opportunity for the BBC to take a lead and restore its place as an important truth-bearing, civilizing, and unifying influence in British culture.

If the Leveson Inquiry is to be remembered in years to come as being more than a momentary circus that entertained us for a while, then a more substantive vision for public life in the UK must begin to rise from the ashes. It is clear that better regulation of how the media operates is needed, but we must also take this opportunity to acknowledge that more laws will not by themselves solve the problem.