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The Ethics of Chequebook Journalism: A case study of ACA and Craig Thomson

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Lisa Coutts

on 27 October 2012

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Transcript of The Ethics of Chequebook Journalism: A case study of ACA and Craig Thomson

ACA and the Craig Thomson Affair The Ethics of Chequebook
Journalism THE CASE A Current Affair caused a journalistic furore in late May this year, when it confirmed it would pay $60,000 to a prostitute, who remained anonymous, to name MP Craig Thomson as a client of her escort services. The story continued... The issue continued, however, with the prostitute appearing on rival TV show, Today Tonight, recanting the statement she made to A Current Affair. The woman said she no longer thought Mr Thomson was a past client, and that she had been confused and incorrect. Mr Thomson responded to the woman's claims, and the subsequent media coverage, saying that the story was "journalism at its worst". He also stated the media coverage was pushing him to the brink, with journalists using 'grubby' tactics to get the story. The story continued... This individual case highlights three particular ethical issues
that can be examined by
ethical theories and principles. So what is the ethical problem? The first and most obvious ethical issue is the fact that A Current Affair offered to pay the prostitute $60,000 for an interview concerning MP Craig Thomson. This offer for payment is a clear example of chequebook journalism, which is widely considered to contain a number of ethical problems. The use of chequebook journalism is a highly ethical and moral issue (Gordon & Kittross, 1999). The main criticism of chequebook journalism is that it “destroys the credibility of all journalism” (Gordon & Kittross, 1999). This stems from the fact that once a source has been paid for information, they often lose credibility and the ability to claim a level of trust (Gordon & Kittross, 1999). The second ethical issue that is evident in this case revolves around the fact that the prostitute, after agreeing to the A Current Affair interview, then went to the rival TV show, Today Tonight, to recant her account of Mr Thomson using her services. The woman went further to apologise to Craig Thomson and his family for the case of “mistaken identity” (Murphy, 2012). While the woman had stated clearly to A Current Affair through a set of text messages that she was “totally unsure” that she had in fact slept with Craig Thomson, Channel 9 aired her original allegations three days later without her knowledge and failing to gain her permission (Murphy, 2012). This represents a serious ethical issue by disregarding her protestations that her statement was not accurate. Further criticism of chequebook journalism cites the risk that paid sources will potentially embellish their information (Sanders, 2003). This nature of chequebook journalism represents the corrupting nature of paying for stories (Sanders, 2003). The ethical approach In order to examine this case using ethical principles, three theories will be drawn upon: Deontology, Consequentialism and Virtue Ethics. These three theories will help identify and illustrate the actions taken as ethically based decisions, and whether or not they were the most beneficial or detrimental in the situation. Deontology Summary The basis of deontology lies in the belief that an action or decision can be classified as 'right' if one adheres to relevant duties, responsibilities, codes or rules. This is evident in the construction of the word deontology, as 'deont' literally means "duty" (Mizzoni, 2010). This means that essence of deontology lies in the fact that in order to do something ethically right, one must fulfill their obligations and duties (Mizzoni, 2010). This means that deontological ethics rest on the idea that intentions, rather than outcomes, are more important when making ethical decisions (Mizzoni, 2010). Essentially, this can be encapsulated by the saying 'the ends do not justify the means' (Mizzoni, 2010). The most important aspect of deontology is the Categorical Imperative, which says that there is one primary rule that can be applied to a situation

Kant (cited in Mizzoni, 2010) explained this as a decision or action "which represented an action as objectively necessary in itself, without reference to another end". The principles contained with deontology rest on three separate concepts:

1. Universalizability
Only engage in actions that would be acceptable, even if everyone did this same action. It is traditionally defined as "I should never act in such a way that I could not also will that my maxim should be universal law” (Kant cited in Waluchow, 2003)
2. Reversibility
This concept is based upon the notion that one must only do that which they would want done to themselves.
3. Respect for others
This concept is based upon the notion that one should “act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another always as an end and never as a means only (Kant cited in Graham, 2011). The Categorical Imperative This case... When applying deontology to the specific case of A Current Affair and chequebook journalism, both sides of the ethical spectrum must be examined.

Furthermore, the concepts of Utilitarianism and Respect for Others will be primarily focused on due to their relevancy to this case. General Perspective When viewing the case deontologically, it can be seen that for ACA and the journalists involved to pay the woman $60,000 challenges the Universalizability concept. Specifically, if every journalist or media program was to engage in chequebook journalism, the profession, and the news information it produced, would always be under scrutiny and lacking credibility. This would mean that a large majority of news would cease to be a credible source of information. General Perspective continued... The case can also be examined using the Respect for Others concept. This particularly relates to the case in question, as the journalist and ACA can be seen to use the woman making the allegations as a means to an end, more specifically, a tool to increase ratings and draw audiences to the program. Journalistic Perspective When using deontology, the case must also be evaluated from the journalistic perspective. This is because deontology relies on the obligations and rules of the situation. As a journalist, therefore,a different set of rules and obligations exist that must be followed and adhered to.

If the case is evaluated considering this fact, it can be seen that the program and the journalists in question were prescribing to the notion that journalism has an obligation to inform the public, and report that which is in the public interest. This prescription to journalistic duties, however, is violated through ACA disregarding the prostitute's claims on Today Tonight that her original allegation was in fact incorrect, and proceeding to air their original interview.

Examining this through a deontological perspective, it is easily seen that by doing this, ACA and Channel 9 made an unethical decision to air a potentially untrue and unfounded piece of information, therefore breaking basic journalistic rules and duties. Chequebook journalism: for and against Consequentialism Summary The basic premise of consequentialism revolves around the concept that an action or decision is 'right' based on the outcome it achieves (Tannsjo, 2008). The three basic concepts of consequentialism are:

Utilitarianism - doing that which benefits the greatest number of people

Egoism - doing that which is good for oneself

Altruism - doing that which is good for others Utilitarianism is often identified as
the most beneficial by scholars, with its 'greatest good' aspect receiving particular attention. Mizzoni (2010) describes this concept as "everyone's welfare being treated as equal".

This is in contrast to egoism, which "gives pride of place to our own welfare" (Mizzoni, 2010). Furthermore, altruism is separate still, with emphasis being placed on "the interests of others ... be[ing] put before our own interests" (Mizzoni, 2010). This case... When examining the case using consequentialism it is beneficial to focus on utilitarianism and egoism, which both play a significant part. When considering the case of ACA and chequebook journalism, utilitarianism plays a significant part, as the journalist involved, in addition to the program itself, were acting in such a way to inform the public about Craig Thomson.

In this way, ACA was attempting to bring to light possible corruption and misuse of union funds, therefore benefiting the greater good. Furthermore, by attempting to expose the story behind Craig Thomson and the prostitute, ACA and the journalists involved were assuming the watchdog role of journalism; holding the government and its officials accountable to their actions and decisions.

By doing this, ACA and Channel 9 were engaging in utilitarian ethics, informing the public about the issue, with the action benefiting the greatest amount of people: the general public (Hurley, 2009; Pettit, 1991 in Darwall). When using consequentialism to analyse the case, egoism can also be applied. This is evident through the fact that ACA offered to pay the prostitute $60,000 to ensure they had exclusive rights to her story, an act which is beneficial only to the program and the journalists involved (Tannsjo, 2008). Furthermore, the decision to
air the information after the prostitute recanted her story also indicates the egoistic approach taken by ACA. By doing this, the program was attempting to promote their own interests by boosting ratings and attempting to prove their side of the story. Although this may be the case, it must also be noted that the prostitute did in fact sign a statutory declaration that her statement was true and correct. Taking this into account, ACA could be justified in airing her claims, as they had a legally binding document to support their decision. Interesting note... ACA's decision to air the woman's claims proved to be a costly choice, however, as the program, Channel 9, and the journalists involved received a large amount of criticism from the public, politicians, as well as the media. Interesting note... Virtue Ethics The core of Virtue Ethics revolves around the theory developed by Aristotle, that focuses on the idea that individuals should foster morally good habits (Mizzoni, 2010). Virtue ethics also represent a choice for individuals, as they must identify the virtues that they find important, and wish to emphasise (Mizzoni, 2010). Virtue Ethics is based on a spectrum of action, titled the 'Doctrine of the Mean'.This spectrum helps place ethical decisions and actions within the range of vices and virtues.

For example, if you were in a certain situation in which you were receiving compliments, a vice would be to be boastful or too humble, where a virtue would be accepting the compliment with modesty. The idea of virtues may differ in nature when comparing journalistic virtues to that of basic individuals.

To be considered a virtuous journalist, one must be seen to be honest, fair, balanced, possessing integrity and uncorrupt. Within journalism, a stronger emphasis is placed on these virtues than in everyday life. This is because professional reputations rely on the possession of these virtuous traits. The nature of Virtue Ethics to place emphasis on the process of individuals 'flourishing' adds an interesting dimension when examining journalistic ethics.

This is because, for a journalist to flourish, they often have to engage in behaviour that may not be accepted as virtuous in normal situations. For example invading on peoples' grief to get a story about a tragedy. Interesting note... Therefore, Virtue Ethics can be described as not telling people what to do, nor making them ask themselves "What should I do?", rather it makes them question the type of person they want to be (Hursthouse cited in Darwall, 2003). This Case... When examining this particular case, Virtue Ethics can be seen to play a substantial part. Specifically, the case can be analysed from a general viewpoint, as well as from a journalistic viewpoint. General Viewpoint When ACA and the journalists decided to pay the prostitute $60,000 they were potentially violating virtues that encompass the journalism profession, specifically, integrity and balance.

However, by stating they were offering the woman payment to compensate her for any potential issues arising from her statement, they can be seen to being fair and uncorrupt. The decision to air the statement after the woman recanted can be seen to violate the basic journalistic virtue of honesty. This is because it was no longer the case that the woman identified Craig Thomson as a client, yet they did not take this into account when airing the statements. Furthermore, when looking at virtue ethics, we must consider the comparison between the kind of person the journalist wants to be and the kind of professional they want to be.

While most individuals aspire to engage in morally good actions in order to 'flourish' and live a happy life, for a journalist to 'flourish' they must utilise different virtuous means. Therefore, when considering the case it can be seen that the type of journalism being pursued was typified by ambitiousness, the desire to succeed, and gain viewership. Final thoughts... When identifying and examining the different ethical theories that apply to the case in question, it can be seen that ACA and the journalists involved were clearly following a consequentialist view of ethics. This is evident through the fact that they placed a larger emphasis on the outcome of gaining the story, rather than the issues surrounding the ethics of chequebook journalism. Australian Screen. (1993). Fear or Favour - Chequebook Journalism. Accessed at http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/fear-or-favour/clip1/
Darwall, S (2002). Consequentialism. USA: Blackwell
Darwall, S (2003). Virtue Ethics. USA: Blackwell Publishing
Farr. M (May 24, 2012). MP Craig Thomson says attacks are 'pushing him to the brink'. Accessed at http://www.news.com.au/national-old/mp-craig-thomson-denies-a-current-affair-escorts-claims/story-e6frfkvr-1226365077616
Gordon, A. & Kittross, J. (1999). COntroversies in media ethics 2nd ed. New York: Longman.
Hurley, P. (2009). Beyond Consequentialism. London: Oxford Scholarship.
Mediawatch (28 May 2012). To pay or not to pay. Episode 17. Accessed at http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3512878.htm
Mizzoni, J. (2010). Ethics: the basics. UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing
Murphy, K. (June 7, 2012). Channel Nine aired ex-prostitute's claim on Thomson, even when she said it wasn't true. Accessed at http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/political-news/channel-nine-aired-exprostitutes-claim-on-thomson-even-when-she-said-it-wasnt-true-20120606-1zwre.html#ixzz28iHDiyGH
Prostitute 'identifies' Thomson in interview. (May 24, 2012). Accessed at http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/8472537/prostitute-identifies-thomson-in-interview
Sanders, K. (2003). Ethics & Journalism. London: Sage Publications
Tannsjo, T. (2008). Understanding Ethics: An introduction to moral theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Today Tonight (2012). Thomson Prostitute Speaks Out. Accessed at www.youtube.com
Waluchow, W. (2003). The Dimensions of Ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd.
7 News (2012). Thomson lashes out at claims. Accessed at www.youtube.com References Final thoughts... If ACA and the journalists had stopped to consider a more deontological perspective, they may have been able to decide upon a more ethical way in which to get the story and, furthermore, cover the statement they gained from the prostitute.

Ideally, ACA and the journalists should have used a combination of consequentialism and deontolgy to ensure they achieved their desired outcomes, while still adhering to relevant journalistic rules and obligations.

Virtue ethics also plays an interesting part in the case, with it seemingly influencing the journalist to disregard those moral actions that are deemed 'good'. Rather, the journalist decided to pursue those actions which helped him flourish as a journalist as opposed to an ordinary individual. Prezi by Lisa Coutts
41439443 Final thoughts... What the case essentially comes down to is the ethics of using chequebook journalism. Using consequentialism, and subsequently utilitarianism, the actions taken to pay the prostitute a substantial amount of money did lead to the gaining of information, and therefore a newsworthy story.

However, the further complication with the story involving Today Tonight and the woman recanting her story called for a more deontological approach to reason out the relevant obligations and rules to be followed in this journalistic situation. It is in this case that the ethical choices made can be seen to be problematic, even when taking into account the fact that the woman signed a legally binding document in regards to her statement.

Finally, it can be concluded that the journalists involved in breaking this story should have engaged in more thorough and extensive investigations into the woman's claim. By following the rules of journalistic investigation, they would have been able to avoid the position they were left in after the woman recanted her story.

I think it is important to note however, that this case does display chequebook journalism in an extremely complex situation, with many ethical grey areas and complicated choices to make. And finally...
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