The glib response to any mention of journalism ethics is a know- all smile and some comment about oxymorons. But that is glib, and it's also wrong. It is probably more wrong now than it has ever been. Events over a number of years have changed the climate, and to a certain extent forced change. The most recent of these is the Gilligan-Kelly-Hutton affair and its aftermath.
Last week we had the Neil report, commissioned by the BBC for the BBC as part of its mostly self-imposed rehabilitation process. At times it seems to extend to self-flagellation, but we understand why it is regarded as necessary, particularly by the new director- general Mark Thompson.
The debate over journalism ethics and standards pre-dates Gilligan, however. Most journalists are responsible, do care, and do reflect upon what they do. That may come from fear - seeing your name on top of an article does concentrate the nerves. It may come from a personal set of values, a reverence for peer respect, or a basic sense of professionalism - a recognition that if you proclaim constantly that you are in the business of "trying to get at the truth" then you ought to have respect for that commodity.
Of course there are journalists who cut corners or exaggerate or believe what they are told by an unreliable informant or succumb to the temptation of publication when the story isn't watertight. But in the vast majority of cases journalists worry and fret and check and do see a connection between disdain for those in authority who lie and obfuscate and the need for accuracy in exposing their abuse of power.
Inevitably, those who get things wrong bring journalism into disrepute, as do those who use dubious methods to gather information or are seen by the public to be over-intrusive. But probably this diminishing respect for journalists and journalism has happened more through trivialisation, through the lesser "journalism" of celebrity, kiss'n'tell, and junk television. The real journalism - of examining the actions and policies and consequences of those in power over the rest of us, on behalf of the rest of us - continues to be conducted to a high standard. There simply isn't enough of it, and that is partly because of cost-cutting proprietors with more interest in the bottom line than the headline.
Journalism in this country lacks the respect it mostly deserves, and that has to be taken seriously. Partly it is a product of the growth of the media and the public obsession with the media, a subject never more discussed. But out of that discussion has come good. There is a recognition on the part of some editors that the trust of the consumers - reader, listener, viewer - is crucial, and this has brought about serious attention to standards. Ron Neil, the former director of news and current affairs at the BBC, emphasises the "trust" word in his report.
It has brought about readers' editors, or ombudsmen, dealing seriously with readers' complaints. It has brought about a new, though still under- developed, preparedness to admit mistakes, correct inaccuracies and apologise. It has brought about self- regulation of the press and the endorsement by editors of a code of practice policed by the Press Complaints Commission, an imperfect system but one preferable to political interference. …