Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rebekah Brooks is guilty

As by extension, is also her boss, Rupert Murdoch. Although she may not have been aware of the phone tapping by her staff, she is still guilty of running an organisation where the production of stories, no questions asked, is the overriding criteria for success. The News of the World was not a work environment where ethical behaviour on the part its employees was the Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks have been charged over alleged corrupt payments to officialsoverriding criteria for advancement.  That former  News International editors Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks,  among five charged over alleged corrupt payments to public officials by journalists, may be found guilty on these charges is not why she is accused in this blog . She is guilty of creating  an unethical organisation 
We all know from our own work experiences that ethical behaviour is not always the norm - that personal contribution to the organisation, and maximisation of profits take precedence. We are aware that the organisation’s code of ethics is a creative document drawn up by its publicity department. That the ‘discounted’ price may not be a true discount; the quality of the work may be less than advertised; that the outcry against the new tax is purely self-serving.
A recent investigation into people who spoke out against wrongdoing in the Australian public service has confirmed this intuitive knowledge. This research comprised nine surveys across the public service, the largest of which sent out 23,177 questionnaires to public servants in 118 agencies, to which 7663 public servants responded. The research was organised by fourteen state and federal government ombudsman and anti-corruption agencies, along with five universities. It found that senior managers and staff responsible for managing ethical behaviour in public agencies believe that whistleblowing is the most useful way to identify and stop wrongdoing. One of the more important findings of this study, however, was the enormous variations in the treatment accorded whistleblowers. In some agencies the negative impact of whistleblowing is less than 10%; in other agencies it can be as high as 50% .In effect, some government departments listen to and act on people in the organisation who speak out against wrongdoing. Other agencies ignore the complaint, even take action against the whistleblower.

In Rebekah Brooks’ News of the World  there would be little doubt that any employee who  spoke out against wrongdoings by the paper would have shortened their career  prospects by a substantial margin.. Rebekah Brooks tells us that did not know about the phone tapping. The reason  may well be  that  she  did  nothing to encourage people  to speak  out against  this or any other dubious activity .If she had, Clive Goodman, an editor, would  not have served time in prison for phone hacking ; nor would Neville Thurlbeck and Ian Edmondsen been arrested  on suspicion of  phone hacking.

News Limited has a Code of Conduct .John Hartigan ,Chairman and Chief Executive of News Limited in Australia has put out a press release citing the Code of Conduct as the reason why the remainder of Rupert Murdoch’s empire is squeaky clean:

Given the wider reputational impact on all journalists as a result of the events in the UK I want to remind everyone that adherence to our ethical code is fundamental to our right to publish and a fundamental requirement of our work, every day.

Rebekah Brooks, who enjoys Rupert’s full support, apparently has not read it. Or as is more than likely, she wrote it. But organisational behaviour needs to go beyond a code of ethics written by a senior executive putting forward a picture image for public consumption. .

Ethical behaviour is as dominant a requirement on the media as it is on any professional body. They influence our attitudes to many of our activities. For many of us, they are the sole information source for the decision - on international conflicts; foreign aid, political parties, even how we vote. The reluctance by politicians to anger powerful media barons was acknowledged with unusual candor recently by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who told a news conference that The News of the World scandal showed the importance of ending what he called the “cozy” relationship in Britain between the media, politicians and the police. Code of ethics only work when they target actual ethical confrontations experienced by employees.  John Hartigan did not, and I suspect cannot, tell us that News Limited forbids the hacking of a mobile phones belonging to celebrities, victims of crime, terrorism and even relatives of soldiers killed in action.


An alternate title to this paper is ‘An Appeal to Moral Philosophers’, which asks that they incorporate into their teaching and writing a range of empirical findings on ethical practices.

But they do not:.  Fifty years ago, Nowell-Smith stated that this subject consisted of “theoretical statements”. Today, a range of philosophers - Hugh La Follette (The Blackwell Guide), Peter Singer (Practical Ethics), the writers of The Ethics Toolkit (Baggini and Fosl) argue that moral philosophy should guide action. But in their publications these philosophers exclude major empirical findings that guide ethical behaviour.

They are not alone: Refusal by the biggest public institution at the time - the Catholic Church - to accept empirical observations suggests that it believed its own teaching, as do philosophers today. The Church condemned to death Galileo Galilei, who had empirically demonstrated that the Church’s teachings were wrong.  

Three findings need to be included in courses and written works on moral philosophy, if we are to have any influence on ethical behaviour:

First - Public interest disclosures - (whistleblowing)  Extensive research has shown that the most effective way to identify and stop wrongdoing is through insiders speaking out against it.. (References –AJ Brown, KPMG, PWC, Univ, of Chicago- in full  paper). So whistleblowing has to be taught.

But whistleblowers are crucified (references), so our own integrity dictates we do have to teach those of our students who want to expose wrongdoing how to protect themselves.

The legislation is supposed to do that, but it doesn’t (refs). So surely we have to expand this teaching to advocate stronger legislation?

Second - Codes of Ethics Not philosophy you will say .Extensive research says that they can be effective. The long-term effectiveness and crucial sense of code-ownership by staff is repeatedly acknowledged in code studies (several refs). So ethics students should be taught codes, and ways for making them effective.

Third – The ethical infrastructure Institutions, legislation and guidelines designed to strengthen ethical practices have grown near exponentially in recent years (references and examples). Ethics officers are being recruited into new corporate positions .These developments follow on from the corporate scandals at the turn of the decade, and the recent Global Financial Crisis, widely regarded as a failure in corporate ethics   People skilled in program evaluation are now trying to find which have been effective, with tentative results emerging.  Are not teachers of ethics obliged to prepare their students for this environment?

Do moral philosophers teach these topics?   

Some do (Cohen and Grace, perhaps others). But most do not. A search for the first two topics - whistleblowing and codes- located 26 articles in the discipline based journals. None in the philosophy journals - The Australasian Journal of Philosophy , Journal of Moral Education,. or Journal of Applied Philosophy. A search of the Springer range of some 35 journals found 290 articles on whistleblowing. None were in the half-dozen or so philosophy journals.

The third topic, institutionalising ethics –has a many articles in the management and administration journals, none in the philosophy journals that were searched

But: Codes of ethics, whistleblowing, ethical institutions, ethical procedures, legislation, etc, are not philosophy.

What is philosophy? We will first use one definition –It helps answer the question on how we should  lead our lives.

But then speaking out, codes and a growing ethical infrastructure  would qualify as philosophically valid. For they guide our actions  provided  the argument that an ethical life leads to a more satisfying life has validity, Whistleblowing itself also raises fascinating philosophical questions on why  people are willing to take on the personal  risk of blowing a whistle against wrongdoing.

A second definition of philosophy states that philosophy consists of argument (reference:  Pojman –The Search for Truth  sixth edition). Whistleblowing exhibits many contradictions, well able to be argued. Two august professors of philosophy in the common room of a major Australian university argued vehemently against whistleblowing being effective – despite the evidence to the contrary.  The arguments are noticeable even in the many definitions of ethics -  the conflict between loyalty and honesty is an example. This conflict is between Virtue Ethics, for loyalty is a virtue, and the Kantian obligation to reveal a wrongdoing.

But perhaps the most fascinating argument of all is that between political philosophy and the public interest – Alan Kessing being a great Australian example of the conflicting moral obligations on a senior public servant when his/her government pushes the ethical boundaries too far.

The implications

The failure of moral philosophy to teach ethics in all its variations has a serious implication for society overall.  It forces the professions, industry associations, governments, and private business to develop their own individual moral philosophies – to write their own moral codes, decide their own ethics policies. Moral philosophy offers little assistance

At USydney, perhaps 20 departments have an ethics course .The lecturers are from the disciplines. They have read LaFollette, Singer, maybe even Aristotle, noted the 2500 years of disagreement, and worked out their own ethical theories. They do their research, publish in their professional journals.  Nobody outside that discipline reads the journals.

For a copy of the full paper, please email  It was rejected by the Journal of Applied Philosophy, The editor, Susan Uniacke, said  it was ‘not ethics’