Media ethics is a vexed issue. The freedom of the press has been one of the most talked about topics in history. Right from the late twentieth century, when the ideas of liberal democracy and personal liberty were on the ascendant and the pressure on dictatorial regimes started increasing, freedom of the media came more into the spotlight. In democratic western societies, the press is seen as a liberator which can reveal the truth and keep the authoritarian streaks in governments under check. Right from Watergate to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the media has blazed a trail of fierce independence tearing into any wrongdoing by government when their representatives try to abuse power and do what is not only unnecessary for governance but that which is also detrimental to the interests of the state.
The Leveson inquiry instituted into the phone hacking scandal in Great Britain opened a can of worms. Not only did it shock the journalistic fraternity across the world but also sent ripples across the entire government-bureaucratic-media complex. Justice Leveson said in his report that the media “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”.
The recent death of a hospital nurse in Britain after she was cheated into believing that she had received the call of the British queen enquiring after Catherine Middleton, has again raked up the issue of media freedom and the ethics, or the lack of it, in a world where sensational journalism is not always frowned upon.
Jacintha Saldanha was the nurse on duty at the hospital where Catherine Middleton, wife of Prince William, was being treated for morning sickness just days after it was found that she is expecting.
Two intrepid radio hosts from Australia tried to get the news out. They called the hospital with one of them putting up a British accent and saying that she was the Queen and wanted to know how Catherine was keeping. The unsuspecting nurse put her through an aide who told her everything about Catherine’s health.
A few days after the incident, the nurse was found dead in her house, with rumours swirling that she might have committed suicide.
Coming just after the exhaustive Justice Leveson inquiry report, the incident is an important eye opener for the media fraternity across the world. No one has the right to breach someone else’s privacy just to get the news out.
It is true that it is the duty of the press to dig out the truth, but it has to be done in a way so as not to violate others rights and privacy.
Taking up a sting operation for the purpose of a story that talks about the ordeals of the common man or delves deep into the causes of corruption in developing society is one thing, and doing a sting just for the sake of entertainment value is different.