In his latest blog on the ethics of journalism, George Pitcher considers how the philosophical school of consequentialism can save media groups time and money

When the pop-star Sir Cliff Richard won his case in the High Court in July against the BBC for invasion of his privacy, over a spurious child-abuse investigation, the subsequent media attention focused on two consequences: The emotional effect of the four-year campaign on Sir Cliff to clear his name and the notional threat to media freedom of not being able to name high-profile suspects in police inquiries.

The first was the consequence of a febrile decision by BBC News to broadcast the police’s search of his home from a helicopter (in Sir Cliff’s absence). The second was a consequence of the BBC losing a case in which the judge took a robustly critical view of its coverage.

Arguably, the BBC could have seen either or both of those consequences coming when it first engineered its own tip-off from South Yorkshire Police. So, a question arises: What exactly was in the hearts and minds of the BBC newsroom that day in August 2014 when they hired the helicopter and put the reporter outside Sir Cliff’s gated community to speak to camera? And a further question: Do we condemn grievous lapses of journalistic judgement, while defending journalists’ rights to have such lapses, for the common good?

Sir Cliff Richard (c) Yui Mok/PA Wire

Hearts and minds

We can only speculate on what compromised media judgements on that day. The emotional response (what we call hearts) may have been sheer excitement over the prospect of a scoop, the first news organisation with pictures from the home of a celebrity – more than that, a national treasure – under investigation. And is it possible that the rational response (minds) could have been rooted in a desire to exorcise the ghost of Sir Jimmy Savile? The BBC buried its Newsnight investigation into the serial child abuser shortly after his death in 2011.

Either way, BBC journalists appear to have been motivated by what had happened and what was currently happening, rather than what could happen as a consequence of its actions. Arguably, this is precisely how newsrooms should and do operate. We report what has happened and what is happening as it unfolds – and the latter imperative is exactly the principle that the BBC and news organisations seek to defend against a resulting legal precedent for banning the reporting of police investigations.

But we should also ask whether journalists bear a responsibility for the manner in which they conduct such reporting. Not least because when they get it demonstrably wrong, as the BBC’s journalists did in Sir Cliff’s case, they run the risk of legal intervention which (as they now claim) will restrict their freedom to report in the public interest. Irresponsible reporting leads, as it were, to the licence of a free press to operate being revoked – again, in the public interest.

So, there’s a demand on a self-regulated, free press to manage its own operational ethics. And it’s in its own interests to do so, because not to do so, as we’ve seen and heard in the wake of the Sir Cliff ruling, leads to circumstances in which its freedom is forfeited.

The school of ethics that we’re addressing here is consequentialism. It differs from other ethical frameworks in that it requires less of the character of people and the virtue of their actions and concentrates pragmatically on the consequences of those actions. In corporate jargon, we’d call them ‘outcomes’. Consequentialist ethics claim that morally correct actions are defined by those that have the best outcomes.

Dark arts

 A nice touch for journalists is that consequentialism is also non-prescriptive, meaning that it isn’t subject to the rule of law or, for that matter, any other authority. So, deceit, perjury and other dark journalistic arts are morally acceptable if they are in the public interest – or, indeed, in a person’s best interests. (Though it’s hard under this ethical provision to see how the consequences of the Sir Cliff’s 2014 media coverage served the better interests of anyone.)

We’re in the territory here of asking whether ends justify means, or utilitarianism in philosophical terms. In shorthand, positive utilitarianism requires that our actions are morally justified by choosing those which do the greatest good for the majority of people. And that could serve as a public-interest defence for journalists.

The problem arises that reporters simply can’t know in advance what the outcomes of their actions are going to be. Furthermore, a media organisation could persuasively argue that it bears no moral responsibility anyway – it has a function, which is to report what is happening accurately, but the outcomes of its actions in doing so are not its moral burden.

Alternatively, we could argue that consequentialism can productively be internalised within a media organisation. It’s unlikely that a public-service broadcaster is going to want to take actions that ruin the careers of young reporters, restrict the media’s ability to operate in law and result in six-figure fines, for no demonstrable – and consequential – public interest.

Newsrooms acting under pressure will get it wrong. When they do, it’s probably better for editors to put their hands up and say so, than belatedly to plead a free-press defence, as the BBC did. But they could also save themselves embarrassment, time in court and money if they taught their staff to consider the consequences of the actions they are poised to take.

Journalists will make errors of judgement. The consequences of those errors are probably the price we pay for a free press. But the frequency and severity of those errors – and the consequences that arise – can be tempered by systems of ethics that have been tested down the centuries (it dates at least from the 5th-century BC). For media groups, consequentialism isn’t a bad place to start for a practical ethical code.

George Pitcher advises Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, on ethics and the future of journalism and is a Visiting Fellow at LSE. He formerly held senior editorial positions at The Observer and the Daily Telegraph. @GeorgePitcher

Views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Dow Jones or the LSE.