The Metropolitan Police’s director of media and communications, Martin Fewell, spoke to BA Multimedia Journalism students on Thursday.
Martin, the former deputy editor of Channel 4 News, gave a lecture titled ‘The Only Way is Ethics’.
In an interactive lecture, Martin spoke as part of final-year students’ Professional Perspectives unit.
Martin started proceedings with an icebreaker, asking students to form into groups and decide their most embarrassing, comical, or interesting stories to reveal to the class.
The class then had to decide which story belonged to who.
From tales of neighbours babysitting Christian Bale to anecdotes of being thrown out of Piers Morgan’s house, students shared a range of stories.
Rather than orate his biography, Martin then asked for a student to volunteer and quiz him Paxman-style in front of the rest of the class.
Charlotte Gay, Nerve Radio’s station manager, stepped forward and probed Martin about his first job in journalism and whether he kept in contact with those he first worked with.
Charlotte asked Martin what he’d least like everyone in the room to know about himself, one of the best questions he’s ever been asked, he later admitted.
Martin replied, “Everybody has their private life, which should stay private, even with social media.”
Martin recalled visiting a number of career fairs, speaking to secondary school children about their digital profiles.
“If somebody applies to me for a job, I immediately Google them and I see what I can find out about them.
“That might be their Facebook page, that might be their Twitter feed, it might be stuff they’ve written, and as a potential employer, that’s now a really valuable tool.”
Martin’s Twitter account is “dormant” for the time being. He did use it as a journalist, but his tweeting activity has taken a pause since taking on his new role.
“I would be perceived to be speaking on behalf of the Met Police. There’s a greater level of responsibility that goes with that.”
Just after getting his new job – whilst still working for Channel 4 News – Martin tweeted a “humorous gag” around the time of the Olympics.
It’s a tweet he regrets, not because it was offensive, but because of the context.
Two hours later, a horrific crime took place in London and this provided Martin with a new perspective.
“If I had put out a tweet like that in my new role, working for the Met, and suddenly something horrendous happens – you put those two things together and you can look a bit foolish.”
Martin then proceeded by providing a quick history of what has led to the questions that are now being asked about ethics and journalism.
He covered the phone-hacking scandal, the demise of the News of the World, and the Leveson Inquiry.
Martin was heavily involved in writing a submission on behalf of ITN and Channel 4 News for the Leveson Inquiry.
After working as a journalist for 25 years, Martin said his new role allowed him to see ethical concerns from a new perspective.
Martin said the Leveson Inquiry didn’t solely focus on print media, adding broadcasters were also under scrutiny.
He pointed to Ofcom, a statutory regulator for broadcast media, which has a code for broadcasters to abide by.
The code discusses when it’s legitimate to film people in a public place and whether they should expect a particular level of privacy.
Martin said it’s a guide for journalists and a set of standards used by people who feel they may have been mistreated by broadcasters.
In his experience, an unusual example occurred when Channel 4 News filmed a housing estate for a news feature about housing.
Unbeknown to the producer, the footage had captured a member of the public in the background. The council had recently rehoused this person to protect her from her husband.
She contacted Channel 4 News and complained she hadn’t given permission for the footage of her to be used.
Martin replied to her saying it was an unfortunate situation, but they weren’t to know her circumstances and there wasn’t an awful lot he could do.
In a public place, such as a shopping centre or a football stadium, a broadcaster is unable to gather everyone’s permission to film.
“That’s a good example of the privacy versus public interest issues that the code doesn’t quite deal with,” said Martin.
An ethical code
Martin said ethics codes are more about principles. They’re not about regulating every bit of behaviour that you might do as a journalist; they’re more about right and wrong.
“If you’ve got an ethical code, then you can apply it across a whole range of circumstance.”
Martin referred to other professions, such as doctors, lawyers, and police officers who all have strict codes of ethics to adhere to.
He then opened up the debate to the floor, asking students what they felt were the core principles of ethical journalism.
Students felt today’s journalists need to show dignity and respect, whilst not rushing to a conclusion when reporting.
Another contentious issue is defining what the public interest is, a defence sometimes used by journalists when infringing someone’s right to privacy.
Martin asked for a show of hands who would write a story on a well-known football player having an affair.
A large number of students said they would report on the affair. Martin said this showed to him what the Leveson Inquiry was really about.
As well as phone-hacking and criminality, Martin believes the Leveson Inquiry focused on the core issue of privacy.
“The Hacked Off campaign is largely populated by people whose privacy has been invaded by the media in some form or another, usually justifying it as being in the public interest.”
Martin then challenged students as a group to write their own code of ethics for journalists.
“You are the journalists of the future. You are going to influence the ethics and the way in which journalists behave.”
Martin earmarked the NUJ’s ethical code, but said there was nothing “official” unlike other professions.
He also brought up case studies from his own experiences that proposed ethical dilemmas, and asked what the students would have done in his situation.
These experiences touched upon protecting the anonymity of sources.
Martin said, “You can write a code of ethics, but at the end of the day, you’re still having to make trade-offs sometimes between different principles.”