‘Conscience Clause ‘ in Journalism: A British Spring in the Making

Mamoon Alabbasi

During a conference entitled “Misrepresentations of Arabs by Western Media”, organised by the London Empire Academy and held in London on June 1st 2011, some participants suggested that rich Arabs should invest in the British press the way forces which are hostile to Arabs have, in a bid to strike a balance that would dilute the bias against the peoples of that region.

At the event, I argued that the battle for a more objective representation in the media would not be won by just throwing money at it. First of all, Arab funds are not necessarily spent in a manner that is beneficial to the majority of the peoples of the Middle Eastand North Africa (MENA). The norm has quite often been the opposite. Arab money linked to authoritarian regimes, narrow or personal agendas, the sponsorship of purely foreign interests in the MENA region, as well as self-loathing figures that wish for the invasion, occupation or starvation of their own people (sometimes out of sheer spite for their own background or faith), are but a few examples of how Arab money or expertise has been used in some Western-based media outlets.

I added that by campaigning for a truly free media in the West, which is one of the main pillars of a real democracy, a fairer depiction of Arabs/Muslims would result by default. No need for counter-spin or lobbying. A better informed public in North America, Europe and Australia would know that their interests are not at odds with those of the majority of people in the MENA region, or indeed the whole world, contrary to what some elites in the West would like to have them think. Public opinion of people in the MENA region and beyond has often been surveyed but rarely reflected in the mainstream media. These views are finally breaking through after the Arab Spring, despite some sinister media attempts to continue to distort them, even though these views have always been readily available for anyone who bothered to look instead of repeating the same old clichéd stereotypes (see “Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think” by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed).

The real battle for Arabs/Muslims of the West is the push for a proper democracy in North America, Europe and Australia. This could help achieve peace and prosperity not only in the lands of their forefathers, but also where their grandchildren would live. Ironically, there could be some truth in the neocon pretext for international warmongering, namely that “democracies don’t go to war with each other”: indeed, a true democracy in the US would not have waged most of the wars (including the covert ones) that it had done after World War II. These wars have not only been devastating to the peoples of the countries where they were waged, but their harm has hit most Americans one way or another. Why would a normally peaceful people agree to war? The answer can partly be found in the distortions carried out by the mainstream media, which has frequently undermined democracy there (and around the world). What should one think of democracy in the West? To quote Mahatma Ghandi, “it would be a good idea.”

It is this very brilliant idea that campaigners in the West for centuries have been continuing to fight for. In Britain today, the battleground is media plurality and freedom. In the wake of the phone hacking scandal at News of the World newspaper and the subsequent revelations of the extent of the influence of the Australian-born US citizen on British politicians and police, in addition to public opinion, more and more people are rightly becoming increasingly alarmed by the power of few media moguls.

Thanks for the brave efforts of Guardian investigative journalist Nick Davies – and countless unsung heroes fighting for media plurality and accountability – Pandora’s Box has been flung open for everyone to see. The scandal is a “chance for change”, argued speakers at a public meeting entitled ‘Murdoch’s Media Empire from Wapping to hacking’, organised by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Unite, and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF), held in London on 13th September, 2011.

Speakers at the event, NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ Honourary General Treasurer Anita Halpin, Granville Williams of CPBF, Sam Barratt of Avaaz, and Martin Moore – Director of the Media Standards Trust, shed light on the vital link between the media and democracy, one day after the Trade Union Congress (TUC) backed an NUJ motion for a ‘conscience clause’ that calls for journalists to be legally protected from being fired if they conscientiously object to what they deem to be unethical practices in journalism.

“The NUJ’s Code of Conduct governs all our members and is at the heart of what we stand for as a union. We have been long campaigning for journalists have the right to a conscience clause, in law, so that when they stand up for a principle of journalistic ethics they have a protection against being dismissed”, Stanistreet said at the TUC conference.

If this principle becomes legally established, it would become one of the biggest victories for democracy since voting became open to people outside a privileged exclusive club. After all, how many ballots were cast on the basis of false information? Internationally, how much blood has been spilt because of such information (e.g. Iraq’s WMDs)?

Western government’s intervention in the MENA region has helped many dictators there come to or remain in power. But these governments themselves came to power thanks to the help of the likes of the Murdoch Empire. Arab protestors realised that liberty – including freedom of the press – can only be won bottom-up. They braved bullets, torture and CIA-backed intelligence agencies. But somehow I think opponents of Murdoch (and his likes) have a tougher task. If they pull it off, it will indeed be a British Spring.

Mamoon Alabbasi is Head of Media at Facilitate Global . He can be reached at mamoon.alabbasi@facilitateglobal.org

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