The first attempts to articulate the rights and responsibilities of journalists which form the basis for modern notions of ethical journalism were made more than 150 years ago at a time of confrontation between The Times of London and the British government.
John Thaddeus Delane, the editor, responded to government criticism of the paper by articulating a complete philosophy and body of principle for the guidance of journalism. In two leading articles in February 1852, he underlined the cardinal principle of truth-telling: “The duty of the journalist is the same as that of the historian — to seek out the truth, above all things, and to present to his readers the truth as he can attain it.”
He underscored the duty of journalism to be independent from government: “…to perform its duties with entire independence, the press can enter into no close or binding relations with the statesmen of the day, nor can it surrender its permanent interest to the convenience of the power of any government.” In order to achieve these objectives, he argued, the press has to be free “to investigate truth and apply it on fixed principles to the affairs of the world.”
Applying these principles, the Manchester Guardian famously criticised its Government and risked the support of popular opinion in its reporting of the Boer war at the end of the 19th Century. Its greatest editor C. P. Scott and owner John Edward Taylor were ready to sacrifice the commercial success of the paper to preserve journalistic integrity — better extinction, they said, than a failure of principle.
Scott wrote most of the great things that have been said about newspapers. One message that particularly resonates today in talk about self-regarding free speech and the Internet is from his centenary article in 1921 where he wrote:
“Comment is free, but facts are sacred…the voice of opponents, no less than of friends, has a right to be heard. Comment also justly is subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is well to be frank, it is even better to be fair.”
From these noble efforts, codes and standards were developed by journalists, editors, publishers and others to protect the notion of editorial independence and “fourth estate” journalism. Today, there more than 400 codes and statements of principle that have been developed around the world over the past 100 years. These are mostly voluntary codes and they provide an aspirational framework for the exercise of journalism.
They have been developed at national and international level by media professional groups, often in consultation with lawyers, media academics and civil society groups. Many media organisations and journalists’ bodies have developed their own codes, some of them included in formal contracts of employment for journalists and other editorial staff.