Ethical notoriety, ethical controversy

Sat, 27 Nov 2010 Source: Dowuona, Samuel

Samuel Dowuona

Having practiced the first twelve to thirteen years of my journalism with the Ghana News Agency, I am very much accustomed with the requirements of journalistic objectivity - keeping one’s self out of what one writes; I still stand by that culture, but it may not serve a good purpose when trying to drum home a point related only to your personal experience but is in the public interest.

Ethically, putting one’s self in the centre of the issue is not necessarily wrong, provided doing so goes to serve the public interest ultimately.

Generally, ethical requirement enjoins journalists to uphold the interest of the majority – so long as one’s choice serves the majority interest, that choice or decision is deemed ethical.

But there are three main positions on journalistic ethics – deontology, teleology and virtue; and they each look at ethics differently.

Deontologists believe in the universality of wrongness and rightness. They believe that choices are morally right or wrong in themselves, no matter the circumstances that necessitated them or the results thereof.

A typical example is the biblical ‘Ten Commandments’- thou shall not… or thou shall… - it means no matter the circumstances, one must uphold the commandments. To the deontologist, if one tells a lie in order to save lives, it does not make that lie morally right, because a lie is wrong in itself and the moral code also says so.

The Teleologists, however, believe in situational and consequential ethics. The cardinal rule underlying teleological ethics is “the end justifies the means”; to wit, a choice is considered ethically correct or morally justifiable depending on what led to it, and the result thereof.

In other words if one kills one person to save many other lives, that one killing is considered morally right because several lives were saved in the process (consequential).

The other aspect is when one kills in self defense, it is considered moral because the act of killing was induced by the threat of being killed (situational).

Virtue ethics is more individualistic than about laid down societal rules – it’s about what the individual’s own character traits are and how they inform his choices.

So then even though the bible, for instance, does not say thou shall not smoke cigarette, the individual sees it morally wrong based on his own sober trait and not wanting to be influenced by anything to act in ways that are not consistent with those traits.

Under the broad umbrellas of deontological, teleological and virtue ethics, there are several examples of ethical questions.

I dare to add two more to the long list of ethical questions – ethical notoriety and ethical controversy. I have a fair idea where the two belong, but I hope by the time you read through this article, you would have made up your mind whether they are teleological, deontological our virtue.

Recently the Minister of Communications, Haruna Iddrisu announced on television that he had asked the National Communications Authority to probe the ‘text and win’ promotions, as well as the price war in the telecom sector.

I took that statement seriously and went scouting for reactions from the telecom operators in the country. I had thought that they made it a point to appoint people to monitor Metro TV Good Morning Ghana every Thursday morning between 7am and 8.30am because their sector minister is always on TV and he sometimes makes very profound policy statements, or at least gives hints of them.

Some of the operators gave quick responses to my questions but others, at least one, brushed it off as “a statement made in passing” so they were not ready to comment.

One would understand why a telecom operator would not want to hazard a comment on such a matter because it threatens to expose possible cobwebs.

But as a journalist, I ride on “statements made in passing” to write some of the big award winning articles. In fact every journalist worth his salt knows that small ideas like “statements made in passing” are the ones that turn into the big articles that address public interest.

In my bid to uphold the public interest, I went ahead with my story on the matter and quoted the responses of those telecom operators who cared to give them.

Days later, I got a call from a very reliable source at one of the telecom regulatory bodies in the country (name withheld), telling me one telecom executive (name withheld) placed a call to the boss of that regulatory body and raised the issue about the minister’s plans to probe some activities of telecom operators.

The caller told me in the midst of the phone conversation, my name came up and that telecom official described me as ‘notorious’ ‘controversial’ and in some other very derogatory and despicable terms, all because I had asked a hard question.

I later did my own underground investigations and got a second witness to confirm that indeed that telecom executive placed that call and said those words about me.

That telecom executive had staff members telling him/her that they saw the minister on TV saying exactly what I said, and yet that executive insisted on running my hard-earned professional reputation in the mud to the boss of that regulatory body, for whatever reason, only God knows.

May I put it on record that, that executive is being audited now and already evidence of deliberate over-payment and double payment to a particular organization have showed up, and yet that executive goes about behaving like some moral horse rider, assassinating the character of journalists.

That was a bad move and the consequences are inevitable. But that is for another day.

But the question of journalistic notoriety and controversy, by every stretch of imagination, is fashionable and does not in the least put the professional integrity of a journalist in question.

In fact, depending on who is describing the journalist as notorious and controversial, the public can then judge whether that journalists is living the true tenets of journalism or is just doing Public Relations extension services for corporate organizations.

The powers that be, including multinationals like the telecom operators would have wished that the media only existed to serve as an extension of the PR outfits. That is why some of them have managed to do so much media buying, branding and even struck strategic deals with media organizations, such that the media is to a large extent, practically couched into silence over very critical issues in the telecom sector.

Some telecom executives have the nerve to demand that journalists seek clearance from them before publishing every piece of information no matter how reliable the sources are. They are obsessed with the desire to control the narrative in every media publication just to look good for their expatriate bosses.

These are the hard facts that when a journalist writes about he is singled out and described as notorious and controversial.

But by the very nature of the watchdog role of journalists, we are not very popular with certain people, even though sometimes those people pretend they hold us in high esteem. They can tell professionalism when they see one, and they will admire it in the public’s eye, but in their privacy they will wish away that kind of journalistic professionalism because it does not necessarily serve their purpose always.

They love it when journalists run at their beck and call and float in the shallow waters, but the critical ones who swim deep waters and fish for vital information that the public needs, are labeled notorious and controversial.

Those journalists, who bring out the real implications of the behaviours, attitudes, postures, and activities of the telecom operators, by looking at them through the spectacles of public interests, are branded by the operators as tarnished and contentious.

As one of the leading telecom correspondents in this country, I have bent over backwards on a number of occasions and risked being tagged a PR agent for telecom operators because I believed in something they were doing, at some point, and I supported it with all the resources I had.

That telecom executive can attest to the fact that I write, with unmatched commitment, about things I believe in and it shows in my choice of words. But this same person cannot see the journalistic professionalism in asking the hard questions and seeking to promote initiatives that may not necessarily be in the interest of the telecom operators but in the public interest.

It is understandable if this person is not particularly enthused by the idea of government probing their activities and a journalist seeking to publish that, but to go to the extent of making a call to a regulator and describing that award winning journalist as notorious, controversial and unprofessional was, to say the least, cheap, unfortunate, malicious, and vicious.

May I submit that as a journalist, I do not have to be the darling boy of telecom executives to be right; in other words, being notorious and controversial is not necessarily equal to being ethically wrong and unprofessional.

If that telecom executive will call me notorious and controversial and the reason for calling me so are in the public interest, then to h*** with that person’s parochial interest. (Pardon my French)

So now let’s judge this matter in the court of public opinion – being notorious and controversial and even unprofessional in order to seek public interest, and being everybody’s darling boy at the expense of public interest, which is ethical?

Telecom operators have branded some media personalities as icons and those personalities push public interest aside and only push the interest of their pay master; those are the ones they call professional and famous.

But people like Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who dare to break all the ethical rules and yet deliver results that justify the ethical violations, give hope to those described as notorious and controversial and unprofessional because they seek to stand with the public rather than with the vicious officialdom.

Long live the notorious and controversial journalists; long live ethical notoriety and ethical controversy; long live the public interest; and mercy and grace for the souls of the malicious and vicious.

“Whom the cap fits, let them wear it.”


Columnist: Dowuona, Samuel