Power play in the media and ethics

Reading Time: 18 minutes
Firoz New
By Firoz Abdul Hamid

Is media a lapdog, watchdog, running dog or simply wagging its tail in a society?

A look at the power play in the media – and its ethics.

1. AN EXPERIENCE THAT ALTERED WISDOM

Year 2007. The corridors were long and by my standards silent except when a door opened. Each department was separated by strong wooden doors. The walks across and below THE building (Prime Minister’s Office) seemed endless not least intimidating. Having worked in less judicious space on a construction environment and then within the cubicles in the private sector, this walk to the Office of the Chief Secretary to the government of Malaysia (Head of Civil Service) seemed distinct.

Little did I know then, this walk would chart the start of a new and insightful journey in my professional life. It would change my view of how the world worked, for up till then everything seemed black and white for me. It would orientate me to the issues of humanity, human struggles and question the whole subject of ETHICS.

The first meeting with the Chief Secretary then, Excellency Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan, who had just taken office for some six months prior, would touch on media and their approach to public sector. He spoke with an exasperate tone of the need for public officials to understand the media. And the media to understand how the public sector works. Seems simple I thought!! And then the real work began. I was to advise him and work with the 1. 4 million public officials and the outside world in making sense of – understanding the media and moving the public sector into a more customer focused service in its delivery.

The next four some years in the public sector (on and off) would cast a new light on how the media worked, locally and abroad, and what those faced with potential media interaction struggle with. Right up to this point dealing with the media from the platforms of private sector has been quite straight forward for me. You have your company and then you have the media. But now your shareholders are – the general public. The policy drivers – Members of Parliament.

Depends on who you speak to – the view on and about media could fall under the following Schools of Thought:

1. Those affected – Well, the media is a lapdog for so and so
2. The media – We are the watchdogs for the people against those scrounging the people
3. Those affected – Media are running dogs for sponsorship and their sponsors
4. The media – We will not wag our tails for anyone

Yet when one dives beneath these categories, and its convictions and self righteous exclamations, you can’t but sense the cry for ETHICS. Where is the ethics in reporting? Where is the ethics in service and serving? Where is the ethics in one’s promises and commitments? Indeed where is the ethics in one’s actions?

In his book Good Value, Right Honourable Lord Stephen Green, the former Chairman of HSBC and former Minister of State for Trade and Investment of the United Kingdom, wrote, “globalisation is about something far deeper than economics, commerce and politics.  It is an evolution of the human spirit.”

He added that “we need to connect our metaphysical and moral framework – what we worship, what we admire, what we hold dear, what we hold to be right – what we think about the world and what we do and should do.  None of the realms we move in – our family life, our social life, and our work life – is neutral ground. “

Lord Green’s writings as with many such similar writings bring forth the fundamental question of what is ethics? There is so much cry for ethics today especially post the financial crises, the disclosures of fraud cases in public and private sector done in the name of profit and the people, ill working conditions for foreign workers in the construction industry to garment production factories and poultry farms causing loss of lives and dignity to many

2. STRUGGLING TO DEFINE ETHICS?

Bees are probably the best example of a well-organised social life in the animal kingdom. But they completely lack what we call humanism, protection of the weak, the right to life, appreciation, recognition and so forth. Bees totally discard useless members in their community by simply throwing them out of the beehive.

So I ask what ethics is.

Should ethics be a protection of the productive only, or of all who make a society? Is ethics what is right by the law? What is right by the conscience, by a faith, a tradition or by individual and community standards? Having dealt with this question we then ask can there ever be consensus on ethics given the potential different permutations to its definition? Where does the line of consensus begin?

Allow me to demonstrate an example to portray how ethics can apply in different societies.

It is said that the ancient dice was made of sheep knuckles some 2500 years ago. Herodotus disclosed that dice games were first invented in the Kingdom of Lydia during a time of famine. There was continuous and severe famine in the land that the King of Lydia decided that they had to implement something that would distract the people from the extreme conditions of suffering which led to infighting.

A Kingdom-wide policy was developed where one day everybody would play the dice game, and on the other everybody would eat. The games were so immersing and engaging that the people would forget of the suffering and hunger, the pain and anguish. On the next day they would eat and on the next they would play the game again.

According to Herodotus, they passed 18 years surviving through famine by eating on one day and playing dice games on the next. When the famine did not recede after 18 years, the King decided they would play one final dice game. He divided the entire Kingdom in half. It was collectively decided that the winners of that game would leave Lydia in search of a new place to live, leaving behind just enough people to survive on the available resources.

Firoz_Media_Pic1

 

Recent DNA evidence showed that the Etruscan Empire which led to the Roman Empire shared the same DNA as the ancient Lydians. And so scientists have suggested that Herodotus’ seemingly wild accounts did actually happen. As outlandish as this story may sound to us today, this act probably saved a civilisation.

Was the Lydia solution ethical – well, it seemed so for their civilisation. It saved a civilisation by making everyone own the solution to a problem.

Given the complexities of humanity in a fast changing global demography, we need to ask what the benchmarks and governance standards are that apply for ethics. Does a less-developed nation benchmark a developed? Should emerging markets use mature markets as their yardstick? Do we have a model that has saved any nation, any society, and helped any civilisation escape the catastrophes that governance or lack of it can bring about? Or rather can we all, across cultures and race, nations and governments, businesses and markets, share a common aspired standard of governance?

3. THE WHOLE NOTION OF FOURTH AND FIFTH ESTATES

Are they needed?

When I was with the public sector, I developed a ‘Daily Media Monitoring Report’ via email which captured key news that affected the public sector of Malaysia. The Secretaries General, i.e. public sector head of Ministries, were copied on the circulation for their relevant action. One analysis I recall which I captured just after a rally called “Bersih (Clean) 2” which took place on July 9, 2011. The rally demanded cleaner electorate in Malaysia. I usually capture excerpts of a report from local or foreign media and assign a header to it as part of my analysis. One such is as follows:

Scoring own goalsNews capture from an online media – The Malaysian ChronicleThe case of the Economist magazine’s report on Malaysia’s experience of Bersih 2.0 and the Malaysian government’s reaction to it is a classic case study of the futility of information control measures undertaken by governments… The end result did not flourish. Instead the authorities realised the hard way that it does not pay to censor information using the age-old principles that applied well when the world was not a connected network. Citizens here became even more curious. And the web-based version of the article was downloaded and mass circulated via the internet. And now everyone got to focus on what the government did not want its citizens to know. Not only that, even the world wide community grew suspicious about the entire saga. In the final analysis, the government failed to realise that it does not pay anymore to censor the print media as the entire world is web-based in its information dissemination. Simply put, there is nowhere to hide and there is no place to lie either. governments cannot control information. Either way it is going to find its way into the public foray. And when people find out your efforts to hide, they will never forgive nor forget.

Another of my analysis was on a media council proposed by the government. There were mixed reactions to this initiative and one such reaction I captured in my analysis read as follows:

Media heads starting to rebel against too much ruling?Report from The Malaysian Insider Several media heads are expected to protest against Putrajaya’s proposal to form a Media Consultative Council (MCC) by snubbing a meeting next week to discuss the body’s terms of reference… instead of attending the meeting themselves, several media chiefs have agreed to show their protest by sending junior editors. It is believed that the heads, including those from Barisan Nasional-controlled media, fear that the council will only impose further restrictions on press freedom. The ministry’s letter came with a proposal paper for the MCC. It details the council’s terms of reference, to be discussed at the meeting. These include its roles, objectives, functions, membership and activities.

The media, technically speaking, is defined as the Fourth and Fifth Estates of a society. Fourth being print media and its journalists, and Fifth being the new media and citizen journalism. I will not deliberate on the definitions of media; suffice to say, it is the wing of society that put out a perceived account of a condition with pen as their sword. There are of course the endless debates on perception and interpretations of situations when an account is told. Therein lie the debate on ethics in media.

In any country, I dare say, there are always the following scenarios on the media – institutionalised ones at least:

1. That they are a mouth piece for someone
2. That they are set up by an opposing party or force

Recently a publication (The Heat) in Malaysia was suspended. The reasons given seem conflicting. But journalists reacted. The following poem was from an article one journalist wrote about the incident. The translated poem of Martin Niemöller, a German social activist, from German to English read as follows:

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

(See more here)

In November 2013, India was rocked by a scandal that involved one of its top editors – Tarun Tejpal, who ran the Tehelka magazine. There are debates in India on why this case took the profile it took. Some argue because the publication Tejpal owned pursued ethics in society yet he could not live by it himself. Some argued the local media gave profile for the story due to the victim. There were also articles which said Tejpal abused his position as a known editor to demand things.

We will never know but yet again this brings forth the argument of:

Can journalists and editors be ethical when they are working for an institution funded and run as a business?

The caricature below in particular surmises the role of a MESSAGE and the MESSENGER

Firoz_Media_Pic2

 

In 2012, an incident in India yet again questioned the ethics of the media. It involved a video of a 16-year-old Indian girl being molested outside a pub in Guwahati by a group of nearly 20 men. This video went viral after it was put on YouTube on July 10, 2012. It was also aired by a local television channel. Online community questioned media ethics especially the way this news spread.  This news gathered a great deal of reaction on Twitter as well.

The reality today is we no longer live in nation state monopolies. This much is fact. We live in a changing yet competitive knowledge based environment. Yet the question isn’t so much lack of access to this knowledge as much as do we know which component of the knowledge is meant to bring good for our society?

4. THE MEDIA IS HERE TO SERVE WHO AGAIN?

The media, like other profit-based institutions, is a business. They have employees, they have stakeholders, and they have shareholders who demand a certain return on investment.

Sure their primary vision is to be the watchdog for the “people” which isn’t different to any other business. But one can argue who are the “people” they are serving. Hence the fundamental question that faces any editor and/or journalist is – how will this serve my organisation? I have no doubt their first instincts are to serve the people but what if in serving those people, it implicates your organisation? Which takes precedence? Unless you are an independent journo – like in any business there is the question of LOYALTY. Who holds your LOYALTY? Who are you beholden to in your job?

It is in this loyalty that we find the crux of ethics – of a company, of a person and of stakeholders.

There is a saying which in essence means “justice lies in the heart of the judge”. There can be laws and there can be judges. Ultimate justice can only be served where there is sound ethics in the hearts and minds of those serving the judgement. You can legislate actions, but you can never legislate emotions and thoughts.

At the height of the recent political reporting on Egypt, Al Jazeera was accused of siding with the opposition. Fox TV is often seen very right wing in the US. The Guardian in the UK seen more liberal compared to most other publications there. This came to the fore even more in how they carried the recent NSA revelations.

In Malaysia, we have similar settings. The state media is seen pro-government by and large and the online seen to give voice to opposing voices. In Malaysia, there has always been a query of who is funding the online media. Most of the online portals are free, and Malaysiakini (one of Malaysia’s leading online voices), for instance, requires to be subscribed.

Even with the subscription-based model there is a debate over whether they are serving the subscribers. What if the subscribers no longer like what you write – what happens then?  Malaysiakini recently launched a buy-a-brick project for their new premises. This is a fantastic idea which brings newsreaders from various walks of lives together by contributing to the institution. The people’s paper or news as it were. But in this nobility lies a potential invisible trap for ethics. What if a certain group or institution contributed a large sum of money to buying the bricks – would the editors be beholden to them?

This argument can be extended to the sponsorship or advertising in any media. If a company has invested air time and print space would the editors be obliged to them? Would the management of the media stop enthusiastic journalists from publishing stories that could implicate their largest funders?

Again we tread the rocky paths of what props ethics in media? Can there be ethics in any business with a going concern? For media there cannot be a better description of this than the image below:

Firoz_Media_Pic3.png

 

5. THE BATTLE FOR REALITY

Today’s reality demands that we have endurance and stamina to face the unique global challenges of our times. Endurance built on value system. A value system that is commonly and communally shared across beliefs, creed and political ideologies. Progress does not guarantee better communities. It does better standards of living. Progress does not certify integrity and honour. No amount of rules and oversight can guarantee good behaviour. The very elements of progress can also be its antithesis.

The former education adviser of Prime Minister Tony Blair, Michael Barber is said to always share this story at the start of his lectures. When taking a walk up the nearby hills with a guest the day after his friend’s 50th birthday party, in Wales, he asks this guest what he did for a living. When the guest said he was a gravestone maker, Michael said, “It must be great to be in a line not affected by globalisation”. The guest replied, “What do you mean? If I didn’t buy my stone over the Internet from India, I’d be out of business” (end quote)

Firoz_Media_Pic4The musical “Fiddler on the Roof”, set in Tsarist Russia in 1905, centers on Tevye the milkman, and his struggles to maintaining his family traditions while outside influences encroach upon their lives. It is a story of hope, love and compromises. It is a story of holding on to values and letting go of traditions. As tight as Tevye held on to traditions he found that his ways were forcefully displaced by the changing times

The battle for reality today is change and adapt. The question is what will change everything and at what pace and at what price? Sir Francis Bacon wrote this in year 1620 in his ‘Novum Organum’ ( also known as The New Invention in Latin) “No empire, no sect, no state and no star has seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries”, If gunpowder, printing and compass changed everything in 1620, what will change everything now? And what will in the coming tomorrows? How do we prepare ourselves for this change as individuals, organisations, societies and nations?

6. POWER PLAY IN MEDIA. POWER PLAY IN ETHICS

Drawing the line of conscience

In their zest to cuddle the front page of breaking stories, media houses and its journalists could neglect what is at stake for humanity. Like the financial crises where decisions made by one person or a group of people affected nations and lives far beyond the shores of decision making, the assessment of rights and wrongs of one journalist could alter situations. The definition of ethics for them may be in the surge of emotions at a moment when a story breaks or a lead is given to them.

The media that built great icons are the very ones that brought them down. Media that built superstars place such scrutiny on their lives, forsaking their privacies, causing some of these ‘celebrities’ to breakdown and resort to suicidal and destructive behaviours. We have seen this so acutely not only in the West but also in the Eastern and Asian cultures. The argument that if you are a public figure, we have the right to pierce through every part of your life remains disputable.

It is these fundamental subtleties that continue to be a miss in the Fourth Estate. They claim ethics in being a journalist – well to be ethical in anything one needs to first understand the business they are reporting about and then understand human conditions. They must also appreciate the whole concept of civilisation and how it needs to grow. Chiefly, they need to be students of history.

Media CANNOT operate independent to society and public and private sectors. They can cause demise of societies in such cases. Media houses must train its journalists and editors to understand the private sector, their vision and growth prospects. Equally they must learn how the public sector works before shooting ‘uninformed’ editorials based on some utopian principle which may work in one society but could not in another because there are cultural and traditional history, different demographic maps and vision for a country.

When I served the government of Malaysia there were instances media were invited to send editors in to learn the system. This is not akin to ‘buying’ anyone. It is education. I found many to lack understanding of how the public sector worked not only in Malaysia but also globally.

Likewise, the public and private sectors need to train their employees to understand how the media works. They need to break out of their suspicious – “they are out to get me” mindset to one of collaboration. The siege mentality in certain public and private institutions including some civil societies and academic institutions has cost their brands to dent as a result. It has allowed perception to prevail over reality of what they stand for.

How can you write anything positive about these institutions if the walls are constantly erected and the doors constantly shut at the face of media? There were prejudices and biases we had to breakdown in the media, when I served, as we did within public and private sectors of the media.

7. WHERE IS THE PATH OF SALVATION FOR MEDIA

The question that confronts us is – what are the values with which we govern this world? What is the ethics with which we run businesses? The principles with which we design medical breakthroughs and scientific innovations? The shared virtues with which we build the next generation? Where are the similarities, the areas of compromise, the consensus, the disputes and the areas of no go? Has anyone done this on a universal stage? To develop universal ethics, all the estates (first to fifth) needs to park suspicion and the zero sum game at the doorsteps before entering the ‘ROOM OF BUILDING UNIVERSAL ETHICS’.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky in one of his interviews, since his release on the 19th of Dec 2013, said as covered by The Economist, “The Russian problem is not just the president as a person; the problem is that our citizens in the large majority don’t understand that they have to be responsible for their own fate. They are so happy to delegate it to, say, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and then they will entrust it to somebody else, and I think that for such a big country as Russia this is the path to a dead end.”

He also added- “The main lesson that I have drawn and I would wish that our opposition would draw the same lesson: Don’t push your fellow citizens—be they opponents, or in power, or in the opposition—into a corner. No matter what, we have to live in the same country. This is what Mandela contributed, in my opinion. That’s what I say, that’s what I write, and that is what many criticise me for. And, thank God, so be it.”

This is an insight that often illuminates when someone has lost everything and moved to the brink of despair. Faced with this people understand what this humanity is about better. It is not about zero sum games. It is about achieving solutions – a win-win for everyone. Whereas we may not be in absolute control of the cards we are dealt with, we can command control in how we play the hand, the cards.

Speak to an Aung San Suu Kyi, a Mandela, a Khaled Mishal and many such personalities and their views before and after their trials. You do not see a subdued figure but rather a more realistic leader who wants inclusiveness for all. Who want equitability not simple equality. The philosopher of the 18th-century, Immanuel Kant, captures this in his work the Critique of Practical Reason , “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence

8. WHOSE BABY IS ETHICS IN MEDIA?

This world is not inherited from our ancestors, but borrowed from our children. Our every action will define the history we each leave behind for our next generation. Ultimately what counts in a plural society is public interest, interest of the common good.

The challenge remains – what is the common good and who defines this. Ethics and especially Ethics In Media is a responsibility not only of the media, but those affected by it, and the spectators who could one day be affected by the media.

The fact that the cameras and pens are held by the media houses can no longer be an intimidating reason. In Malaysia politicians (from Opposition parties) and business leaders have sued government owned media houses and won. Sure there then the debate of soundness of judiciary to be able to do this. Even online media have been sued by government officials and apology notes presented to those affected. On a recent case – court ruled that an opposition leader in Malaysia had to remove comments from his blog when he accused the family of a leading public sector leader of taking advantage of his position.

Where media was perceived free to dictate – I would argue it no longer is. The phone hacking scandal in the United Kingdom is a case in point which brought down not only leading Editors, but also a leading publication.

To be able to take on any institution on the subject of ethics and morals – we must educate ourselves of the industry. Individuals, companies, public sector, civil society cannot be beholden to Media but MUST understand how they operate and collaborate with them for the common good of their societies. As the media demand ethics of others in the name of being a watchdog for society, the society too must demand the same of editors and journalists to prevent them from being lapdogs and running dogs.

The Chief Secretary to the government of Malaysia who I served, His Excellency Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan (who is now the Chairman of Petronas – Malaysia’s state-owned oil company) always says – I like the game of golf, not that I play well, but because of the fundamentals of the game. It is a game that does not generally rely on referees; there is no outside scorekeeper and supervisor. It is a game that relies solely on the persons playing and their honour system. The game is anchored wholly on the integrity of the players to keep their scores including penalising themselves when they need to do so. Golf is predicated on a set of rules of engagement which needs to be understood by those players playing it. Why? Because the rules of engagement, policing, supervision, refereeing and scorekeeping are observed by the players themselves, not a third party as in most sports.

In the final analysis we cannot liberalise a policy, if the mindset is not liberalised. Nor can we move up the value chain if the mindset doesn’t correspond. We have to develop an empowered society across industries. This empowerment should be based on a simple human insight and not traditions. Traditions never move beyond a community that sees it proper. Instead what is transportable, exportable, installable are values. Values transcend borders and boundaries. It can bridge differences and divergence when shared. For instance, a new hospital will not bring good patient care; good doctors and medical practitioners will. Similarly a media is only as credible as its next credible reporting.

Every society must demand and subscribe to the economics of ethics and the globalisation of fairness and call for dignified profit. Without this moral vector in a society we cannot even begin to demand ethics In media not least ethics in business in that society. This said, realism must also prevail. People are often conditioned; they are slaves of circumstances and may not have the training to overcome their fears to face their conscience. It is thus the role of institutions they work for to provide this support and infrastructure. The education system in our homes and in societies must promote and inculcate ethics – no matter the situation.

The words Thomas Jefferson brings insight in this case. He said“I never did, or countenanced, in public life, a single act inconsistent with the strictest good faith; having never believed there was one code of morality for a public, and another for a private man”. The Caliph Umar Ibn Khattab (may God preserve him) said, “Trust is that there should be no difference between what you do and say and what you think.

In closing I like to share a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s acclaimed book, titled For Whom the Bell Tolls. It tells the story of a soldier who traverses life through its many shades. It is the story of character, strength and honesty – principles that ultimately define our own legacies. It tells of how we cannot isolate our actions from a universal reaction given the intertwined destinies of mankind. This quote continues to touch my conscience whenever I write and speak of ethics:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…;
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

– THE END –

References

  1. http://investvine.com/author/firoz
  2. http://www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/boaz/pol326/feb12.htm
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_Estate
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_Estate
  5. http://www.digitalnewsasia.com/insights/first-they-came-for-old-media-then
  6. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/tarun-tejpal-tehelka-tejpal-sexual-assault-case-tejpal-goa-villa/1/326670.html
  7. http://valeriemag.com/voices/indias-journalists-launch-reporting-standards-campaign
  8. http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2013/12/mikhail-khodorkovsky-0
  9. http://www.thestar.com.my/News/Nation/2013/11/12/tony-pua-dap-resolve-defamation-suit.aspx
  10. http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/81
  11. http://tedxproject.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/jane-mcgonigal-gaming-can-make-a-better-world
  12. Book: Stephen Green, Good Value
  13. Book: Thomas Friedman, That Used To Be Us
  14. Excerpts from speeches by the Chief Secretary written by the author

See the full channel Ethics in Business.

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[caption id="attachment_27120" align="alignleft" width="171"] By Firoz Abdul Hamid[/caption] Is media a lapdog, watchdog, running dog or simply wagging its tail in a society? A look at the power play in the media - and its ethics. 1. AN EXPERIENCE THAT ALTERED WISDOM Year 2007. The corridors were long and by my standards silent except when a door opened. Each department was separated by strong wooden doors. The walks across and below THE building (Prime Minister’s Office) seemed endless not least intimidating. Having worked in less judicious space on a construction environment and then within the cubicles in the private sector,...

Reading Time: 18 minutes

Firoz New
By Firoz Abdul Hamid

Is media a lapdog, watchdog, running dog or simply wagging its tail in a society?

A look at the power play in the media – and its ethics.

1. AN EXPERIENCE THAT ALTERED WISDOM

Year 2007. The corridors were long and by my standards silent except when a door opened. Each department was separated by strong wooden doors. The walks across and below THE building (Prime Minister’s Office) seemed endless not least intimidating. Having worked in less judicious space on a construction environment and then within the cubicles in the private sector, this walk to the Office of the Chief Secretary to the government of Malaysia (Head of Civil Service) seemed distinct.

Little did I know then, this walk would chart the start of a new and insightful journey in my professional life. It would change my view of how the world worked, for up till then everything seemed black and white for me. It would orientate me to the issues of humanity, human struggles and question the whole subject of ETHICS.

The first meeting with the Chief Secretary then, Excellency Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan, who had just taken office for some six months prior, would touch on media and their approach to public sector. He spoke with an exasperate tone of the need for public officials to understand the media. And the media to understand how the public sector works. Seems simple I thought!! And then the real work began. I was to advise him and work with the 1. 4 million public officials and the outside world in making sense of – understanding the media and moving the public sector into a more customer focused service in its delivery.

The next four some years in the public sector (on and off) would cast a new light on how the media worked, locally and abroad, and what those faced with potential media interaction struggle with. Right up to this point dealing with the media from the platforms of private sector has been quite straight forward for me. You have your company and then you have the media. But now your shareholders are – the general public. The policy drivers – Members of Parliament.

Depends on who you speak to – the view on and about media could fall under the following Schools of Thought:

1. Those affected – Well, the media is a lapdog for so and so
2. The media – We are the watchdogs for the people against those scrounging the people
3. Those affected – Media are running dogs for sponsorship and their sponsors
4. The media – We will not wag our tails for anyone

Yet when one dives beneath these categories, and its convictions and self righteous exclamations, you can’t but sense the cry for ETHICS. Where is the ethics in reporting? Where is the ethics in service and serving? Where is the ethics in one’s promises and commitments? Indeed where is the ethics in one’s actions?

In his book Good Value, Right Honourable Lord Stephen Green, the former Chairman of HSBC and former Minister of State for Trade and Investment of the United Kingdom, wrote, “globalisation is about something far deeper than economics, commerce and politics.  It is an evolution of the human spirit.”

He added that “we need to connect our metaphysical and moral framework – what we worship, what we admire, what we hold dear, what we hold to be right – what we think about the world and what we do and should do.  None of the realms we move in – our family life, our social life, and our work life – is neutral ground. “

Lord Green’s writings as with many such similar writings bring forth the fundamental question of what is ethics? There is so much cry for ethics today especially post the financial crises, the disclosures of fraud cases in public and private sector done in the name of profit and the people, ill working conditions for foreign workers in the construction industry to garment production factories and poultry farms causing loss of lives and dignity to many

2. STRUGGLING TO DEFINE ETHICS?

Bees are probably the best example of a well-organised social life in the animal kingdom. But they completely lack what we call humanism, protection of the weak, the right to life, appreciation, recognition and so forth. Bees totally discard useless members in their community by simply throwing them out of the beehive.

So I ask what ethics is.

Should ethics be a protection of the productive only, or of all who make a society? Is ethics what is right by the law? What is right by the conscience, by a faith, a tradition or by individual and community standards? Having dealt with this question we then ask can there ever be consensus on ethics given the potential different permutations to its definition? Where does the line of consensus begin?

Allow me to demonstrate an example to portray how ethics can apply in different societies.

It is said that the ancient dice was made of sheep knuckles some 2500 years ago. Herodotus disclosed that dice games were first invented in the Kingdom of Lydia during a time of famine. There was continuous and severe famine in the land that the King of Lydia decided that they had to implement something that would distract the people from the extreme conditions of suffering which led to infighting.

A Kingdom-wide policy was developed where one day everybody would play the dice game, and on the other everybody would eat. The games were so immersing and engaging that the people would forget of the suffering and hunger, the pain and anguish. On the next day they would eat and on the next they would play the game again.

According to Herodotus, they passed 18 years surviving through famine by eating on one day and playing dice games on the next. When the famine did not recede after 18 years, the King decided they would play one final dice game. He divided the entire Kingdom in half. It was collectively decided that the winners of that game would leave Lydia in search of a new place to live, leaving behind just enough people to survive on the available resources.

Firoz_Media_Pic1

 

Recent DNA evidence showed that the Etruscan Empire which led to the Roman Empire shared the same DNA as the ancient Lydians. And so scientists have suggested that Herodotus’ seemingly wild accounts did actually happen. As outlandish as this story may sound to us today, this act probably saved a civilisation.

Was the Lydia solution ethical – well, it seemed so for their civilisation. It saved a civilisation by making everyone own the solution to a problem.

Given the complexities of humanity in a fast changing global demography, we need to ask what the benchmarks and governance standards are that apply for ethics. Does a less-developed nation benchmark a developed? Should emerging markets use mature markets as their yardstick? Do we have a model that has saved any nation, any society, and helped any civilisation escape the catastrophes that governance or lack of it can bring about? Or rather can we all, across cultures and race, nations and governments, businesses and markets, share a common aspired standard of governance?

3. THE WHOLE NOTION OF FOURTH AND FIFTH ESTATES

Are they needed?

When I was with the public sector, I developed a ‘Daily Media Monitoring Report’ via email which captured key news that affected the public sector of Malaysia. The Secretaries General, i.e. public sector head of Ministries, were copied on the circulation for their relevant action. One analysis I recall which I captured just after a rally called “Bersih (Clean) 2” which took place on July 9, 2011. The rally demanded cleaner electorate in Malaysia. I usually capture excerpts of a report from local or foreign media and assign a header to it as part of my analysis. One such is as follows:

Scoring own goalsNews capture from an online media – The Malaysian ChronicleThe case of the Economist magazine’s report on Malaysia’s experience of Bersih 2.0 and the Malaysian government’s reaction to it is a classic case study of the futility of information control measures undertaken by governments… The end result did not flourish. Instead the authorities realised the hard way that it does not pay to censor information using the age-old principles that applied well when the world was not a connected network. Citizens here became even more curious. And the web-based version of the article was downloaded and mass circulated via the internet. And now everyone got to focus on what the government did not want its citizens to know. Not only that, even the world wide community grew suspicious about the entire saga. In the final analysis, the government failed to realise that it does not pay anymore to censor the print media as the entire world is web-based in its information dissemination. Simply put, there is nowhere to hide and there is no place to lie either. governments cannot control information. Either way it is going to find its way into the public foray. And when people find out your efforts to hide, they will never forgive nor forget.

Another of my analysis was on a media council proposed by the government. There were mixed reactions to this initiative and one such reaction I captured in my analysis read as follows:

Media heads starting to rebel against too much ruling?Report from The Malaysian Insider Several media heads are expected to protest against Putrajaya’s proposal to form a Media Consultative Council (MCC) by snubbing a meeting next week to discuss the body’s terms of reference… instead of attending the meeting themselves, several media chiefs have agreed to show their protest by sending junior editors. It is believed that the heads, including those from Barisan Nasional-controlled media, fear that the council will only impose further restrictions on press freedom. The ministry’s letter came with a proposal paper for the MCC. It details the council’s terms of reference, to be discussed at the meeting. These include its roles, objectives, functions, membership and activities.

The media, technically speaking, is defined as the Fourth and Fifth Estates of a society. Fourth being print media and its journalists, and Fifth being the new media and citizen journalism. I will not deliberate on the definitions of media; suffice to say, it is the wing of society that put out a perceived account of a condition with pen as their sword. There are of course the endless debates on perception and interpretations of situations when an account is told. Therein lie the debate on ethics in media.

In any country, I dare say, there are always the following scenarios on the media – institutionalised ones at least:

1. That they are a mouth piece for someone
2. That they are set up by an opposing party or force

Recently a publication (The Heat) in Malaysia was suspended. The reasons given seem conflicting. But journalists reacted. The following poem was from an article one journalist wrote about the incident. The translated poem of Martin Niemöller, a German social activist, from German to English read as follows:

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

(See more here)

In November 2013, India was rocked by a scandal that involved one of its top editors – Tarun Tejpal, who ran the Tehelka magazine. There are debates in India on why this case took the profile it took. Some argue because the publication Tejpal owned pursued ethics in society yet he could not live by it himself. Some argued the local media gave profile for the story due to the victim. There were also articles which said Tejpal abused his position as a known editor to demand things.

We will never know but yet again this brings forth the argument of:

Can journalists and editors be ethical when they are working for an institution funded and run as a business?

The caricature below in particular surmises the role of a MESSAGE and the MESSENGER

Firoz_Media_Pic2

 

In 2012, an incident in India yet again questioned the ethics of the media. It involved a video of a 16-year-old Indian girl being molested outside a pub in Guwahati by a group of nearly 20 men. This video went viral after it was put on YouTube on July 10, 2012. It was also aired by a local television channel. Online community questioned media ethics especially the way this news spread.  This news gathered a great deal of reaction on Twitter as well.

The reality today is we no longer live in nation state monopolies. This much is fact. We live in a changing yet competitive knowledge based environment. Yet the question isn’t so much lack of access to this knowledge as much as do we know which component of the knowledge is meant to bring good for our society?

4. THE MEDIA IS HERE TO SERVE WHO AGAIN?

The media, like other profit-based institutions, is a business. They have employees, they have stakeholders, and they have shareholders who demand a certain return on investment.

Sure their primary vision is to be the watchdog for the “people” which isn’t different to any other business. But one can argue who are the “people” they are serving. Hence the fundamental question that faces any editor and/or journalist is – how will this serve my organisation? I have no doubt their first instincts are to serve the people but what if in serving those people, it implicates your organisation? Which takes precedence? Unless you are an independent journo – like in any business there is the question of LOYALTY. Who holds your LOYALTY? Who are you beholden to in your job?

It is in this loyalty that we find the crux of ethics – of a company, of a person and of stakeholders.

There is a saying which in essence means “justice lies in the heart of the judge”. There can be laws and there can be judges. Ultimate justice can only be served where there is sound ethics in the hearts and minds of those serving the judgement. You can legislate actions, but you can never legislate emotions and thoughts.

At the height of the recent political reporting on Egypt, Al Jazeera was accused of siding with the opposition. Fox TV is often seen very right wing in the US. The Guardian in the UK seen more liberal compared to most other publications there. This came to the fore even more in how they carried the recent NSA revelations.

In Malaysia, we have similar settings. The state media is seen pro-government by and large and the online seen to give voice to opposing voices. In Malaysia, there has always been a query of who is funding the online media. Most of the online portals are free, and Malaysiakini (one of Malaysia’s leading online voices), for instance, requires to be subscribed.

Even with the subscription-based model there is a debate over whether they are serving the subscribers. What if the subscribers no longer like what you write – what happens then?  Malaysiakini recently launched a buy-a-brick project for their new premises. This is a fantastic idea which brings newsreaders from various walks of lives together by contributing to the institution. The people’s paper or news as it were. But in this nobility lies a potential invisible trap for ethics. What if a certain group or institution contributed a large sum of money to buying the bricks – would the editors be beholden to them?

This argument can be extended to the sponsorship or advertising in any media. If a company has invested air time and print space would the editors be obliged to them? Would the management of the media stop enthusiastic journalists from publishing stories that could implicate their largest funders?

Again we tread the rocky paths of what props ethics in media? Can there be ethics in any business with a going concern? For media there cannot be a better description of this than the image below:

Firoz_Media_Pic3.png

 

5. THE BATTLE FOR REALITY

Today’s reality demands that we have endurance and stamina to face the unique global challenges of our times. Endurance built on value system. A value system that is commonly and communally shared across beliefs, creed and political ideologies. Progress does not guarantee better communities. It does better standards of living. Progress does not certify integrity and honour. No amount of rules and oversight can guarantee good behaviour. The very elements of progress can also be its antithesis.

The former education adviser of Prime Minister Tony Blair, Michael Barber is said to always share this story at the start of his lectures. When taking a walk up the nearby hills with a guest the day after his friend’s 50th birthday party, in Wales, he asks this guest what he did for a living. When the guest said he was a gravestone maker, Michael said, “It must be great to be in a line not affected by globalisation”. The guest replied, “What do you mean? If I didn’t buy my stone over the Internet from India, I’d be out of business” (end quote)

Firoz_Media_Pic4The musical “Fiddler on the Roof”, set in Tsarist Russia in 1905, centers on Tevye the milkman, and his struggles to maintaining his family traditions while outside influences encroach upon their lives. It is a story of hope, love and compromises. It is a story of holding on to values and letting go of traditions. As tight as Tevye held on to traditions he found that his ways were forcefully displaced by the changing times

The battle for reality today is change and adapt. The question is what will change everything and at what pace and at what price? Sir Francis Bacon wrote this in year 1620 in his ‘Novum Organum’ ( also known as The New Invention in Latin) “No empire, no sect, no state and no star has seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries”, If gunpowder, printing and compass changed everything in 1620, what will change everything now? And what will in the coming tomorrows? How do we prepare ourselves for this change as individuals, organisations, societies and nations?

6. POWER PLAY IN MEDIA. POWER PLAY IN ETHICS

Drawing the line of conscience

In their zest to cuddle the front page of breaking stories, media houses and its journalists could neglect what is at stake for humanity. Like the financial crises where decisions made by one person or a group of people affected nations and lives far beyond the shores of decision making, the assessment of rights and wrongs of one journalist could alter situations. The definition of ethics for them may be in the surge of emotions at a moment when a story breaks or a lead is given to them.

The media that built great icons are the very ones that brought them down. Media that built superstars place such scrutiny on their lives, forsaking their privacies, causing some of these ‘celebrities’ to breakdown and resort to suicidal and destructive behaviours. We have seen this so acutely not only in the West but also in the Eastern and Asian cultures. The argument that if you are a public figure, we have the right to pierce through every part of your life remains disputable.

It is these fundamental subtleties that continue to be a miss in the Fourth Estate. They claim ethics in being a journalist – well to be ethical in anything one needs to first understand the business they are reporting about and then understand human conditions. They must also appreciate the whole concept of civilisation and how it needs to grow. Chiefly, they need to be students of history.

Media CANNOT operate independent to society and public and private sectors. They can cause demise of societies in such cases. Media houses must train its journalists and editors to understand the private sector, their vision and growth prospects. Equally they must learn how the public sector works before shooting ‘uninformed’ editorials based on some utopian principle which may work in one society but could not in another because there are cultural and traditional history, different demographic maps and vision for a country.

When I served the government of Malaysia there were instances media were invited to send editors in to learn the system. This is not akin to ‘buying’ anyone. It is education. I found many to lack understanding of how the public sector worked not only in Malaysia but also globally.

Likewise, the public and private sectors need to train their employees to understand how the media works. They need to break out of their suspicious – “they are out to get me” mindset to one of collaboration. The siege mentality in certain public and private institutions including some civil societies and academic institutions has cost their brands to dent as a result. It has allowed perception to prevail over reality of what they stand for.

How can you write anything positive about these institutions if the walls are constantly erected and the doors constantly shut at the face of media? There were prejudices and biases we had to breakdown in the media, when I served, as we did within public and private sectors of the media.

7. WHERE IS THE PATH OF SALVATION FOR MEDIA

The question that confronts us is – what are the values with which we govern this world? What is the ethics with which we run businesses? The principles with which we design medical breakthroughs and scientific innovations? The shared virtues with which we build the next generation? Where are the similarities, the areas of compromise, the consensus, the disputes and the areas of no go? Has anyone done this on a universal stage? To develop universal ethics, all the estates (first to fifth) needs to park suspicion and the zero sum game at the doorsteps before entering the ‘ROOM OF BUILDING UNIVERSAL ETHICS’.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky in one of his interviews, since his release on the 19th of Dec 2013, said as covered by The Economist, “The Russian problem is not just the president as a person; the problem is that our citizens in the large majority don’t understand that they have to be responsible for their own fate. They are so happy to delegate it to, say, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and then they will entrust it to somebody else, and I think that for such a big country as Russia this is the path to a dead end.”

He also added- “The main lesson that I have drawn and I would wish that our opposition would draw the same lesson: Don’t push your fellow citizens—be they opponents, or in power, or in the opposition—into a corner. No matter what, we have to live in the same country. This is what Mandela contributed, in my opinion. That’s what I say, that’s what I write, and that is what many criticise me for. And, thank God, so be it.”

This is an insight that often illuminates when someone has lost everything and moved to the brink of despair. Faced with this people understand what this humanity is about better. It is not about zero sum games. It is about achieving solutions – a win-win for everyone. Whereas we may not be in absolute control of the cards we are dealt with, we can command control in how we play the hand, the cards.

Speak to an Aung San Suu Kyi, a Mandela, a Khaled Mishal and many such personalities and their views before and after their trials. You do not see a subdued figure but rather a more realistic leader who wants inclusiveness for all. Who want equitability not simple equality. The philosopher of the 18th-century, Immanuel Kant, captures this in his work the Critique of Practical Reason , “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence

8. WHOSE BABY IS ETHICS IN MEDIA?

This world is not inherited from our ancestors, but borrowed from our children. Our every action will define the history we each leave behind for our next generation. Ultimately what counts in a plural society is public interest, interest of the common good.

The challenge remains – what is the common good and who defines this. Ethics and especially Ethics In Media is a responsibility not only of the media, but those affected by it, and the spectators who could one day be affected by the media.

The fact that the cameras and pens are held by the media houses can no longer be an intimidating reason. In Malaysia politicians (from Opposition parties) and business leaders have sued government owned media houses and won. Sure there then the debate of soundness of judiciary to be able to do this. Even online media have been sued by government officials and apology notes presented to those affected. On a recent case – court ruled that an opposition leader in Malaysia had to remove comments from his blog when he accused the family of a leading public sector leader of taking advantage of his position.

Where media was perceived free to dictate – I would argue it no longer is. The phone hacking scandal in the United Kingdom is a case in point which brought down not only leading Editors, but also a leading publication.

To be able to take on any institution on the subject of ethics and morals – we must educate ourselves of the industry. Individuals, companies, public sector, civil society cannot be beholden to Media but MUST understand how they operate and collaborate with them for the common good of their societies. As the media demand ethics of others in the name of being a watchdog for society, the society too must demand the same of editors and journalists to prevent them from being lapdogs and running dogs.

The Chief Secretary to the government of Malaysia who I served, His Excellency Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan (who is now the Chairman of Petronas – Malaysia’s state-owned oil company) always says – I like the game of golf, not that I play well, but because of the fundamentals of the game. It is a game that does not generally rely on referees; there is no outside scorekeeper and supervisor. It is a game that relies solely on the persons playing and their honour system. The game is anchored wholly on the integrity of the players to keep their scores including penalising themselves when they need to do so. Golf is predicated on a set of rules of engagement which needs to be understood by those players playing it. Why? Because the rules of engagement, policing, supervision, refereeing and scorekeeping are observed by the players themselves, not a third party as in most sports.

In the final analysis we cannot liberalise a policy, if the mindset is not liberalised. Nor can we move up the value chain if the mindset doesn’t correspond. We have to develop an empowered society across industries. This empowerment should be based on a simple human insight and not traditions. Traditions never move beyond a community that sees it proper. Instead what is transportable, exportable, installable are values. Values transcend borders and boundaries. It can bridge differences and divergence when shared. For instance, a new hospital will not bring good patient care; good doctors and medical practitioners will. Similarly a media is only as credible as its next credible reporting.

Every society must demand and subscribe to the economics of ethics and the globalisation of fairness and call for dignified profit. Without this moral vector in a society we cannot even begin to demand ethics In media not least ethics in business in that society. This said, realism must also prevail. People are often conditioned; they are slaves of circumstances and may not have the training to overcome their fears to face their conscience. It is thus the role of institutions they work for to provide this support and infrastructure. The education system in our homes and in societies must promote and inculcate ethics – no matter the situation.

The words Thomas Jefferson brings insight in this case. He said“I never did, or countenanced, in public life, a single act inconsistent with the strictest good faith; having never believed there was one code of morality for a public, and another for a private man”. The Caliph Umar Ibn Khattab (may God preserve him) said, “Trust is that there should be no difference between what you do and say and what you think.

In closing I like to share a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s acclaimed book, titled For Whom the Bell Tolls. It tells the story of a soldier who traverses life through its many shades. It is the story of character, strength and honesty – principles that ultimately define our own legacies. It tells of how we cannot isolate our actions from a universal reaction given the intertwined destinies of mankind. This quote continues to touch my conscience whenever I write and speak of ethics:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…;
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

– THE END –

References

  1. http://investvine.com/author/firoz
  2. http://www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/boaz/pol326/feb12.htm
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_Estate
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_Estate
  5. http://www.digitalnewsasia.com/insights/first-they-came-for-old-media-then
  6. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/tarun-tejpal-tehelka-tejpal-sexual-assault-case-tejpal-goa-villa/1/326670.html
  7. http://valeriemag.com/voices/indias-journalists-launch-reporting-standards-campaign
  8. http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2013/12/mikhail-khodorkovsky-0
  9. http://www.thestar.com.my/News/Nation/2013/11/12/tony-pua-dap-resolve-defamation-suit.aspx
  10. http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/81
  11. http://tedxproject.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/jane-mcgonigal-gaming-can-make-a-better-world
  12. Book: Stephen Green, Good Value
  13. Book: Thomas Friedman, That Used To Be Us
  14. Excerpts from speeches by the Chief Secretary written by the author

See the full channel Ethics in Business.

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