Time for a conscience clause?

Tony Harcup

In a forthcoming book of articles on the phone hacking scandal, journalist and academic Tony Harcup argues that given the "ethical vacuum" in some newsrooms post-Wapping it is time to give the NUJ's proposal for a conscience clause a try.

The NUJ argues that journalists need a conscience clause in their work contracts to protect them from being sacked if they refuse to do unethical journalism.

Harcup, who teaches and researches journalism at the University of Sheffield, writes: "The NUJ – under the leadership of former Express MoC Michelle Stanistreet, who in 2011 became the union’s general secretary – has used its presence at the Leveson Inquiry to once again raise the issue of a conscience clause.

"Given the climate created by Hackgate it is possible that the NUJ may now be pushing at a door that, if not exactly open, might be unlocked. Or at least less heavily bolted to keep it out. That being so, it is worth asking whether adding such a clause to journalists’ codes of practice could help to protect ethical journalism. The short answer is that we will never know unless we try it; the slightly longer answer is that the evidence points towards a qualified yes.

Healthier culture

"It is not that a conscience clause would be a magic solution to what are perceived as journalism’s ethical shortcomings; it is not that all citizens nor indeed all journalists would necessarily agree on what those shortcomings might be; and it is not that such a clause would eliminate the grey areas of interpretation that are often where the real choices are made.

"Such a clause would be very unlikely to be ‘top of mind’ for the vast majority of journalists the vast majority of the time, and the chances are that it would be used very, very rarely if ever. But – and this certainly is a big but – its mere existence could help contribute to a healthier workplace culture within newsrooms in which questions can sometimes be asked and objections can occasionally be voiced without the foot soldiers of journalism (lowly reporters and photographers) fearing a verbal onslaught at best and being shown the door at worst."

You can read a full version of this story at Jon Slattery's blog.