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22.05.2019

Journalistic Ethics and the Strache Affair: Interview with Tom Law (EJN) on the ethics of the Strache video

By Daniel Leon

The ECPMF spoke this morning with Tom Law, deputy director of the London-based Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) about the Strache Affair, about the ethics of producing and disseminating the Strache video.

Journalistic Ethics and the Strache Affair: Interview with Tom Law (EJN) on the ethics of the Strache video Austrian Parliament in Vienna. Public Domain Photo

Now we know that the Strache video, published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel on May 17th, had one of the highest impact that journalistic reporting can have: the dissolution of a country’s government. The identity of the video’s authors remain unknown, including their motivation. Moreover, the video is from 2017 and its dissemination occurred two years later. These facts leads to several questions on journalistic ethics. Tom Law kindly agreed to clarify some of these ethical concerns.

1. Has your phone been ringing a lot because of the Strache Affair?

Actually no. Although there is a wide-ranging debate in the media and press freedom organisations on the ethics and legal considerations surrounding the production and release of the Strache Video, you are the first one to reach us.

2. It is yet unknown who produced the video. In case it was reporters: is it legitimate to produce such a video as part of investigative journalism? 

I would be very surprised if journalists were behind the making of the video. Journalists must have a high threshold of evidence to carry out an undercover video where they try to set up a high profile politician.

If the authors of the video journalists, their methods are justifiable, only when they can argue that they reached a level of prior evidence high enough to warrant an undercover sting operation. If the supposed journalists do not have enough evidence to warrant such methods, then they are just engaging in a “fishing trip,” which is unethical.

If journalists had produced the video, I cannot imagine why they would have waited two years to publish it. Much more likely, a political actor has provided the video to journalists made it, or the video has been leaked to the press.

Tom Law Tom Law, EJN. (Photo: ECPMF)

3. Süddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel published this video even though Strache had been set up and there were apparent political motivations for giving them the video a week before the European elections. Was that a breach of journalistic ethics?

You always have to consider the motivations of the person leaking or creating these kind of sting operations and leaks. But again you have to weigh this against the strength of information that it reveals and how important it is. I would be surprised if the timing of the video’s release by these German media outlets was deliberate. From what I understand they published the video and their story not soon after it came into their possession.

Imagine if these outlets had had held off  releasing the video after the election and the backlash they would face. Not publishing it would mean withholding material that was in the public interest from the Austrian people before an important event like an election.

4. Politicians from all parties have meetings they consider private where they discuss topics they consider confidential. Lawyers could argue that this is a breach of privacy. Is publishing scenes from an alleged private meeting justifiable?

From the point of view of journalistic ethics, one would need to weight the right to individual privacy versus the public interest. In the case of the Strache video, the right of Austrian citizens to have access to crucial information on their nature of their politics appears to far outweigh any privacy argument that could be made. Specifically, the video gives important insights to the public on the now-dissolved governing coalition. (Strache said in the video that the financial takeover of an Austrian newspaper would help his party and called to create a monopolized media landscape like Hungary). Therefore, I would argue that disseminating this video was justifiable.

5. One sees alcohol, drugs and highly caffeinated drinks on the coffee table where the video took place. Should journalists have considered Strache’s probably impaired state of mind when deciding whether to disseminate the video?

Of importance is what he said and the way he said it. There were drugs and alcoholic drinks visible in the video, but we cannot ascertain if Strache was under the influence of alcohol or drugs and to what degree. One has to take these cases individually. Without concrete evidence of Strache’s alcohol or drug consumption, one cannot use the visible presence of substances in the video to excuse the content of his words. Even if he was inebriated, the news value of what he says is so strong that it would be hard to mount an argument to not publish the video.  

6. What lessons for journalistic ethics can we learn from the Strache Affair?

The lesson from the Strache Affair is less about media acting more ethically but more about how media outlets can better explain to the public the nature of their work. From a consumer point of view, it might be difficult to understand the large gap between the production of the video (in 2017) and its dissemination that occurred this year. The answer to the question of why did it take two years for the video to surface remains unknown [see ECPMF note below]. It makes perfect sense that media outlets many times have to protect the confidentiality of their sources, but the gap between production and dissemination of the video begs many questions.

Journalists understand why media outlets often have to protect the confidentiality of their sources and how they obtain information, but these reasons may not be as obvious to the public.

Media outlets and journalists can learn much from the Strache Affair about better explaining the nature of their journalistic processes. They can also find ways to explain how they handle their sources without compromising their confidentiality and the considerations that go into verifying information provided by the sources, which affects the timing of their release to the public. Lastly, they should also explain why in certain cases their sources must remain anonymous.

Journalists in Europe and around the world can visit the Ethical Journalism Network’s Accountable Journalism website find the code of ethics for each country, where there are answers to many ethical questions surrounding the day-to-day work of journalists.


 

Note from the ECPMF: two journalists from the Süddeutsche Zeitung answered the main questions of their readers in a video (in German) and explain the background of the research, when it was offered to them, why they published it now after the careful analyses, which explains the time-gab between the production and the dissemination. The Spiegel also published an article about the publication.

You find the ECPMF's statement "Strache Affair shows the need to promote and defend press and media freedom" here.



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