Umberto Eco: The birth of ethics

Umberto Eco, March 2010, Paris. Credit: Flickr / Abderrahman Bouirabdane

Umberto Eco, March 2010, Paris. Credit: Flickr / Abderrahman Bouirabdane

I am of the firm belief that even those who do not have faith in a personal and providential divinity can still experience forms of religious feeling and hence a sense of the sacred, of limits, questioning and expectation; of a communion with something that surpasses us.What you ask is what there is that is binding, compelling and irrevocable in this form of ethics.

I would like to put some distance between myself and the subject. Certain ethical problems have become much clearer to me by reflecting on some semantic problems – don’t worry if people say this discourse is difficult; we are perhaps encouraged into easy thinking by the ‘revelations’ of the mass media, which are, by definition, predictable. Let people learn to ‘think difficult’ because neither the mystery nor the evidence are easy to deal with.

My problem was whether there were ‘semantic universals’, or basic concepts common to all humanity that can be expressed in all languages. Not so obvious a problem once you realise that many cultures do not recognise notions that seem obvious to us: for example, that certain properties belong to certain substances (as when we say ‘the apple is red’) or concepts of identity (a=a). I became convinced that there certainly are concepts common to all cultures, and that they all refer to the position of our body in space.

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Would it have been OK to hack Jimmy Savile's phone?

As already mentioned on this blog, at least one editor has said the libel laws made him nervous of printing allegations of broadcaster Jimmy Savile’s abuse of young girls. There are certainly more complex reasons behind the failure to properly report the story in the past, but it is worth looking at the broader ethical questions the case raises. Former trustee and long-time associate of Index on Censorship Mark Stephens has posed one such question on Twitter this morning.


Or, to generalise the question: what kind of issue justifies intrusion and subterfuge on the part of journalists? And what level of intrusion and subterfuge? It’s a problem Lord Justice Leveson’s panel of assessors is bound to be discussing. What do you think?

Ethics training not the issue, academics tell Leveson Inquiry

A group of academics told the Leveson Inquiry today that there is no lack of ethics training for students on journalism programmes, and that the issue to address is newsroom culture.

Professor Steven Barnett, of the University of Westminster, said ethics were like a “stick of rock” running through modules taught. Brian Cathcart of Kingston University (and Index on Censorship blogger) added that, in offering ethics training, he and his colleagues sought to produce “not just journalists but reflective journalists who think about what they’re doing.”

Cathcart, also founder of the Hacked Off campaign, added that we’ve “come a long way”, noting he received no ethical training at the start of his career.

Head of journalism at City University, Professor George Brock, added that the key issue was the newsroom culture, which he said determined behaviour. Barnett added that it is impossible to teach someone how to deal with ethical problems on national tabloids. “It is a matter of individual moral courage,” he said.

Angela Phillips, of Goldsmith’s College, noted that many young graduates want to work for more ethical papers but get “trapped” due to higher salaries offered by redtops.

Lord Justice Leveson was keen to reiterate he was “not on a witch-hunt”, adding that he was “anxious to find out what has gone wrong in an industry in which there is an enormous amount that goes absolutely right.” Brunel University’s Julian Petley (also an Index on Censorship contributor), while noting that the term tabloid should not be a “dirty word”, was eager to differentiate between the redtops and broadsheets. He suggested it was time that “editors of ethical papers stop making common cause with editors of papers that have brought this Inquiry into being”, adding later that the Daily Mail “bullies” the government. Cardiff University’s Ian Hargreaves replied, “nice liberal broadsheets can be bullies as well.”

Both Petley and Phillips argued journalistic standards could be improved by a statutory right of reply and for offending newspapers to print adjudications.

Brock spoke in favour of rewriting privacy legislation, arguing that balancing Article 8 and Article 10 of the Human Rights Act had “not worked well”. He advocated legislation that protects private life while not chilling solid journalism, and called for a greater focus on public interest defences.

There was a consensus that the Press Complaints Commission needed reform, with Hargreaves arguing that robust regulation does “not come in the thickness of the armour, but in the cunningness of design.” Petley advocated a new regulatory process with a “limited” statutory backdrop and more investigatory powers, while Barnett suggested those who choose not to sign up to a new, independent self-regulatory system should pay VAT.

Petley added later that “journalism rarely recognises its own power”, while Cathcart and Barnett argued that the press had not been “caught up in the move towards greater accountability.”

“Public trust in journalism has been damaged,” Cathcart said, adding that any remedy “must be seen to be radical.”

The Inquiry continues tomorrow with evidence from former Information Commissioner Richard Thomas.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson.