Wednesday, 20 November 2013

I have read and agree to the terms and conditions…

Today's Media and Ethics class explored the fascinating world of Codes of Conduct. No, wait! Come back! Specifically, we looked at the basic issue of what they're for and whether we need them at all. We examined the National Union of Journalists' code, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations one, and the Student Charter that they all sign when they join the university.

Not one of the students know that they've agreed to adhere to a charter setting out their rights and responsibilities. That's instructive in itself: we all tick licence agreements and terms and conditions online without ever looking at them. Can we be said to have consented to them? Or should we accept the responsibility and read every line? Certainly the student code is a rag-bag of ideas drawing on Kantian and utilitarianism and ranges from the bleedingly obvious to the staggeringly impractical. Our students commit to things ranging from keeping their contact details up to date (which isn't an ethical matter) to committing to 'celebrating diversity'. This is a bit shocking to me. Without knowing much about it, the students have agreed to a particular ideological viewpoint. Now, I'm as anti-racist as anyone, perhaps more so, but I'm a bit concerned about this. Are we saying that racists can't study here? I'd be happy with that, but I'm not sure it would stand up in court and if we are saying so, we should make it clear, rather than shoving in a list which includes a commitment to speak up in seminars and do the reading. I have a strong suspicion that few of them actively 'celebrate diversity', partly because it's a completely meaningless formulation, so they're all in breach of the Code. The law doesn't ban racism or paedophilic impulses because that's an impossibility: it bans racist and paedophilic behaviour. I'm such a wet liberal that I don't want to ban racists from getting an education here. In fact I think it's imperative: a good education will stop them from being racists. Nor do I think that ticking a box agreeing to a Charter will turn a racist into a non-racist.

The fact that the students didn't know they'd agreed to it implies that the charter is little more than PR, or a trap for anyone of whom we wish to dispose. 'You signed the charter', we can say, 'and now you've broken the rules'. In theory, at least: no sanctions are mentioned, which led to a discussion about whether any code is worthwhile if there are no consequences to breaches of that code. On the other side, a Kantian might say that behaviour dictated by fear of consequences can't be ethical at all. Another point against codes of conduct is that they outsource ethical consideration to a finite list: whether it's intended as a minimal or maximal formulation, it encourages the individual to rely on prescriptions rather than close consideration of their own actions.

Certainly the NUJ code is an idealistic wish-list which assumes a working culture of fairness and respect: not that of the News of the World and its sister papers. The Nuremburg Trials banned the 'only following orders' defence on the grounds that some crimes are so manifestly unethical that the individual should have been able to recognise their innate evil. The NUJ code ends with this:
The NUJ believes a journalist has the right to refuse an assignment or be identified as the author of editorial that would break the letter or spirit of the NUJ code of code.
Which is lovely. But imagine yourself in the busy newsroom of a Sunday tabloid on Saturday night. You don't have a proper contract, a thousand people want your job, you have kids to feed and the editor is demanding that you hack a phone (this is a hypothetical scenario, you understand). What happens to you when you point to the NUJ site and decline that order? Security pop round, dump your I Heart Rupert mug in a cardboard box and escort you from the building, and you're replaced by a meaner, hungrier hack in minutes. The NUJ code is all very nice, but lots of newsrooms don't even recognise the union, and even fewer give a damn about the moral qualms of its staff. Codes of Conduct don't recognise the structural and institutional context of ethical decision-making, even the ones that aren't deliberately written to leave massive loopholes. 'No man is an island'? Not until you're being asked to take the ethical weight of the world entirely on your shoulders while your erstwhile colleagues shrug and look away.

One school of thought holds that codes of conduct are just advertising - a way to dignify your profession. Occupational lobbyists look at the respect we have for doctors and lawyers (in theory) and decide that the way to join them is to have a Code of Conduct - a public list of rules. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations is so grand that it has a Council which approves the Code of Conduct. It talks about 'professional standards' and 'other professions' a lot, which rather strongly implies that being a PR agent is a profession. Actually, it isn't. Professions are those occupations in which the individual practitioner has a duty to 'the public interest', 'the public' or some abstract concept which outweighs the requirements of the practitioner's client or self-interest. Put simply: if you're a professional, you'll sometimes have to make decisions which hurt you or your client because they're right but inconvenient. The journalist (yes, we're still talking ideal situations here) has a duty towards 'truth' and 'the public interest' and should therefore present the facts as objectively and fully as possible ha ha ha ha ha. But it's something to aspire to and that's what makes journalism a profession. PR operatives aren't. They can be honest and hard-working and fair, but they don't have a permanent, unbending requirement to act according to the public interest. The original CIPR code did say this, but it got taken out by 2011 and replaced with this:

deal honestly and fairly in business with employers, employees, clients, fellow professionals, other professions and the public
which is less about ethics and more to do with efficiency and practicality. The public is tacked on at the end and 'honestly and fairly' is very, very vague. In any case, none of this is about behaving ethically: the purpose of the CIPR code is simply a matter of marketing:
Reputation has a direct and major impact on the corporate well-being of every organisation, be it a multinational, a charity, a Government Department or a small business.
It is, essentially, PR for the PR industry. What are the sanctions for people who break the code? Well, you might get thrown out, though Max Clifford is a member and never got disciplined whatever lies he told the press. If you do get thrown out, nothing happens. If a lawyer or doctor breaks their oaths, they never practice again: CIPR membership is voluntary and 80% of practitioners aren't members, so  it's a piece of window-dressing.

Anyway, that's the kind of thing we talk about in my Ethics class. Recruitment is open for next year and we have plenty of space. All you need to do is sign the Student Charter…


Jason D Jawando said...

The question of whether it is ok to educate a racist student was tested (without conclusion) by the Patrick Harrington incident at North London Polytechnic in the mid-eighties. I can't help wondering if the student charter is a way for universities to avoid claims for vicarious liability: if a student has signed a charter promising not to behave in a racist/sexist/homophobic manner, the university can claim to have discharged its responsibility.

Is that too cynical?

Arron Hook said...

The diversity and offence bits of the university code are idiotically vague, open for biased interpretation and open to all kind of lunatic moral and cultural relativism. How do you define racist, sexist or homophobic behave under the code of practise. Is it if the offence is taken by somebody who had it directed at them or somebody of the said group took offence or that a member of staff who is not a member of the group in question viewed it as bigoted. Also what if one minority say a Muslim student makes a homophobic remark and is then removed from the university. Isn't that anti-diversity because you are attacking somebody because of their religious/cultural beliefs, even if they happen to be abhorrent. I only signed the thing to make life easier, but I'm not ever going to accept diversity, because I believe some views are beyond the pale and, more simply, if everybody accepts the promotion of diversity and attack those who don't, you cease to believe in diversity and become the enforcers of conformity of thought, something I imagined university was meant to be a bastion against.

Samantha Fleming said...

This is completely unrelated, but hey.

Have you ever seen the South Park episode "Human Centipad"? It looks into how we rarely, if ever, read the Ts&Cs. Kyle downloads an iTunes update and clicks 'agree' without reading through them. Kyle is pursued by agents from Apple Inc. who kidnap him to be part of their 'Human Centipad' product. Kyle continues to sign agreements without reading them first - much to Steve Jobs' frustration.

It's a good episode (albeit a bit crude of course...) as it explores Apple's dominance in the phone and tablet market, contains Star Trek references etc.

Not necessarily related to the Student Charter, but never mind, South Park is good for everything eh...

Arron Hook said...

I've not seen that episode, but I'll look it as apart of my Popular Culture module, which I have to watch South Park as a case study.

Samantha Fleming said...

It's a good episode. I did that module myself three years ago (God) and it was undoubtedly one of my favourites as I love Pop Culture stuff. It's surprising just how challenging South Park is, and even more surprising how I watched it many years previous and missed all of the references that are in each episode in abundance!

Arron Hook said...

I know what you mean. I get the same thing with both the Simpsons and Family Guy. I'm now re-watching South Park and Family Guy again, after watching them whilst I still at school, and the strong juvenalian satire, which I originally took just to be toilet humour.

Sam said...

That's the beauty of University!

The Plashing Vole said...

Jason - I think you're right that codes of conduct are used often as a mechanism for passing on responsibility.

Arron - you've found a problem with unfocussed but well-meaning commitments. Should we be protected from offence? I thought universities were where we tested our beliefs, rather than cosseted them.

Sam - must look for that episode. I got behind with South Park a long time ago.