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Journalism: Asking the Basic Questions of Ethics

Much of the Western world, particularly Europe and the UK, has been engulfed in the News of the World scandal, in which journalists of the 168-year old newspaper have been accused of hacking into the mobile phone accounts over several years, which is already illegal, but even worse, of vulnerable people. It is apparent that no one has been spared, from the mobile phone of a murdered girl (which possibly interfered with police operations) to widows of dead soldiers. Now forced to close down (the newspaper released their last issue on Sunday), the government, journalists and public now face the real questions: does closing down the company have any effect on what happened at the top, and does it hold any who actually approved and committed these crimes to account?

I do not think that News of the World qualifies as good journalism. The editors have heaped praise upon the current staff members who are soon to go on the dole, but the newspaper is rightfully notorious for its “coverage” of celebrity binge-disasters, marriages and divorces, adulterous romps with other high-profile politicians, celebrities or public figures. Personally, I do not have much sympathy for this style of coverage, especially since it presupposes that digging up dirt deserves any funding or remuneration, let alone be made public knowledge. News of the World seems to have had no qualms about sticking their noses into the affairs of others, but I am sure that if the people responsible had not left the company or been caught, they would have gladly persisted with all the hacking needed to find yet more stories no one in their right mind would care about.

Some Britons may be fond of our country’s appetite for sleazy gossip, perhaps as a form of escapism from things that are actually important, such as issues of faith, religions and the role of spirituality in an increasingly technologized and isolated society. However, whether or not News of the World has shut down is not the problem. The problem is not even the relationships between businessmen, journalism or media, and politicians. The problem (and indeed the reason why people are so passionate about this) begins with an ethical question of “how far does one go” for a good story? Why do we bother to write at all to people we hope will read our work? And should celebrity-driven journalism be concerned about its own public standing when it seeks to tear down the standings of others (whether or not they deserve it)?

This is what I see as the realization spreading throughout public awareness in the UK right now: the sometimes-forgotten knowledge that not all journalism is equal in quality and integrity, and that we have given far too much credit and too many chances to those who aim for the baser curiosities of their target readers. An amusing, rather extreme quote I heard is that there is only one thing more far-fetched than fantasy and that is journalism. Perhaps this is indicative of some newspapers and magazines. But in the end I disagree. The Fourth Estate and its vocation (and indeed of writing as a whole) can be extremely worthwhile.

Journalism is a powerful force, a vehicle that can be used for tremendous good in spreading awareness, promoting the arts and culture, and serving as a vehicle for secular and spiritual leaders and philanthropists who genuinely seek to leave a mark for the better on this world.  Journalism can be part of ethical institutions and promote their hosts’ cause. Indeed, this is one of the objectives of Buddhistdoor International. And how else was News of the World’s unethical deeds exposed? In other words, journalism can be part of the solution and not the problem.

In order to regain the reputation it deserves, British journalism needs to have a long hard look at itself. It needs to ask itself why it needs to speak out. Does it seek to expose the atrocities of war and promote the cause of peace? Does it seek to extend the stokes of the Wheel of Dharma across the world, from Asia into Europe, the Americas, and beyond? Does it intend to be a vehicle of compassion, public enlightenment and hope? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes,’ then half the battle is won and the prospect of achieving tremendous things is already there. Intention is everything, especially for those who presume to have others read about their opinions.

Or does journalism seek to thrive on being as tasteless as possible by showcasing Celebrity A’s frisk with Celebrity B the other night? Does it believe that skeletons in the closet are far more newsworthy material than the activities of philanthropic organizations and Foundations? The Buddha once advised that aimless chitchat or gossip was actually one of the components of harmful speech. Extrapolating from this observation, I think it is quite apparent that journalism is almost like a force of nature, like fire itself: able to illuminate entire societies, or devastate and bring ruin.

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