The path to "ethical journalism" starts here

It should be a source of shame that big online publishers are as a matter of course not linking to s

It's no surprise that punters trust journalists even less than before after the phonehacking scandal. But it's not just tabloid hacks, whose reputation was as low as a snake's belly to begin with, but broadsheet writers too, according to research from Nottingham University.

I take all such surveys with a grain of salt, but let's suppose the numbers are entirely accurate: why might the profession as a whole be plummeting in our estimations? Is it solely because of the phonehacking, or other scandals such as the one that led to Johann Hari's public apology this week? And is there anything we as journalists can do to repair the damage?

As I wrote some time ago, those of us who see ourselves as of a similar political alignment to Hari can't let him off the hook because he's "one of us". But anything less than demanding that Hari be disembowelled live on Blue Peter leads to accusations that you're somehow "defending" his offences against ethical and professional behaviour.

So to remove all doubt: I think Hari's actions were wrong. I'd have sacked him. But I'm not a newspaper editor; I'm just another hack, a less successful one at that, so what do I know? I don't agree with the Independent's decision, but I can understand why they've done it: Hari is seen as an asset, an attractor of readers and advertising revenue alike; and everyone deserves a second chance. Will the readers forgive him? The Independent must be banking that they will.

What message does it send, some ask, to readers and journalists alike? That you can get away with crossing the line if you're a bien-pensant liberal goodie, but you can't if you're a lower-status News of the World baddie? No, it's not quite that. Let's not forget just how unpleasant what happened at the News of the World was. Just this week, the mother of a victim of the 7/7 terror atrocities launched a legal action against the News of the World's publisher after she was told her son's phone was targeted by the paper. Those allegations are so serious, the consequences so hurtful to families who have suffered so much.

That's why readers turned against Britain's most popular paper; that's why it couldn't carry on.

The sad truth is that sometimes journalists do make stuff up. They do it because they want to, because they're told to, and because they don't have to be told to -- they just know how they're expected to get stories. This isn't happening all the time, or most of the time. Most journalists, I would like to think, uphold the highest standards -- but we just don't know who is and who isn't.

We aren't trusted by the punters, and we either do something about it, or it's going to get worse.

How do we regain trust in the profession when it's at its lowest ebb? For some, the answer comes in training -- that's the remedy proposed for Hari's many professional and ethical issues, and that's the prevention that some commentators see as the way of stopping this kind of thing, and the more serious offences by the News of the World and others, from happening. I am not so sure that changes anything. And, much as I agree with the NUJ's code of ethics, I don't know if having all journalists subscribe to some kind of Hippocratic oath will solve the problem either.

Former tabloid reporter Rich Peppiatt writes at the BBC College of Journalism that simple measures such as accurately linking to sources and engaging with social media could go some way to restoring credibility. It should be a source of shame that big online publishers -- including one of the biggest, the Mail Online- - are as a matter of course not linking to sources.

Why shouldn't readers click a link and see where the information has come from, and ensure that it's been represented accurately? It just adds a grain more trust to the process of reading a story.

There's also the idea of transparency. A lot of stories come from press releases and agencies, and there's no shame in that. Why not tell readers that you've written a story on the back of a release, or re-nosed a bit of PA copy? It's not some big magic trick that we're spoiling for the punters by doing that; it's just treating them like intelligent consumers of information. They're not going to run home crying because they've seen Father Christmas's beard fall off. They'll be fine with it. They might even think better of us if we treat them like adults.

There's a long way to go if journalists are going to restore trust in this most benighted of professions. If it's going to happen, it has to come from the top, with clear guidelines, transparency, honesty and integrity at all levels.

But there's another aspect to this, too: punters may claim they don't trust tabloid journalists, and give more weight to broadsheet counterparts, but whose product ends up being bought by the most people? If we as consumers want to make a difference, it's by choosing to get our news from the most trustworthy source; otherwise we're just rewarding bad behaviour and encouraging more of it.

Will clearly signposted ethical journalism really sell better than the other kind? That remains to be seen.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.