17 May

Overstepping the line, or the invasive role of the media

It seems as though last week was ‘gaffe week’ in Britain. First there was David Cameron describing Nigeria and Afghanistan as ‘fantastically corrupt’. At a reception in Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, the Prime Minister was caught on camera speaking informally to the Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Speaker of the House of Commons. His comments referred to an anti-corruption summit to be held in London later in the week that was to include politicians from Nigeria and Afghanistan, nations that are – according to the Prime Minister – ‘possibly the most corrupt countries in the world.’

Later that day, Her Majesty the Queen made remarks, not intended for the microphone, that were likewise construed as undiplomatic by the press. During a garden party to commemorate her 90th birthday, the sovereign complained about the behaviour of Chinese officials during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Britain earlier in the year. Speaking to a Metropolitan Police Commander, Lucy D’Orsi, she said Chinese officials were ‘very rude to the [British] ambassador’, Barbara Woodward.

Both sets of remarks, uttered in informal conversational circumstances, were divulged by the press. Videos are available online and the words are in print. Virtually all news agencies, newspapers and other mass media reported them. Opinion pieces praising or denouncing the Tuesday comments followed. In broad terms, both the Prime Minister’s and the Queen’s remarks – problematic though they may be for diplomatic relations – contain no falsehoods whatsoever.

But much more than shedding light upon the minds of the principals, the media furore reveals the present nature of the media itself. Some journalists seem concerned with turning a profit without regard for the ethical limits of their own activities. Publishing for its own sake ought to be discouraged by those responsible for informing the public about matters of significance in national and international life. Informal comments are not relevant, and their publication – especially when it may do diplomatic harm – is to be regretted. If there is qualified truth in the assertion that ‘the public must be informed’, the privacy of individuals ought still to be respected. Only when the media recognise a need for decency and decorum will there be attained a proper ethical balance between informing and giving due regard to privacy.

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