Media Ethics and Hidden Cameras

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Was the use of Hidden Cameras by the News Media Ethically Justified in the Fahey and Todd Cases? Explore Why or Why Not, Referring to Recent Cases [Jane Shannahan]

Introduction
Right to privacy became an issue in the US as far back as 1890 in words not unfamiliar to 21st century ears:

“The press is overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency. Gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious, but has become a trade, which is pursued with industry as well as effrontery” (Warren & Brandeis, 1890, cited in Pearson, 2005, p.2).

Privacy is much more widely violated today due to technology. Ethical guidelines for journalists have not kept up with these changes, augmented by the availability of platforms on an international scale. Ward has discussed ethics issues for media which include:

“Accuracy and Verification: How much verification and context is required to publish a story? How much editing and ‘gate-keeping’ is necessary? (and) Deception and Fabrication: Should journalists misrepresent themselves or use recording technology, such as hidden cameras, to get a story? Should literary journalists invent dialogue or create composite ‘characters’?” (Ward, 2009, p.296).

The two cases discussed here came to light via covert recordings made of high profile members of the New Zealand community, namely the sexual allegations against Dr Morgan Fahey and the exposure of the sex and drug life of international eventer, Mark Todd. The proceeds of the recordings were made public. This case study will compare the cases to determine whether the intrusions were ethically justified.

In 1998, TV3 alleged in its 20/20 programme that Dr Morgan Fahey had been sexually abusing patients. A second show featured a meeting between ex-patient Brenda and Fahey in his surgery that Brenda filmed via a secret handbag camera. Fahey’s lawyers tried to prevent the secret footage being transmitted but the injunction was overturned by the Court of Appeal. Fahey was charged in July 1999 and in May 2000 pleaded guilty to sex charges relating to 11 women over a 30-year period. In mid-2000, at age 68, he was sentenced to six years in prison but was released on parole in September 2003.

In June 2002, the UK’s Sunday Mirror featured grainy images purporting to be a gay liaison and drug use in an English hotel room. The party of note was world-renowned Olympic eventer, Mark Todd. The material gleaned from hidden recording equipment was passed on to the newspaper by a 24-year old male prostitute who added that Todd talked about other sexual indiscretions and outwitting drug-testing prior to the forthcoming Olympic Games. To compound the incident, a TV3 reporter went to Todd’s England home with a visible microphone and, unseen, by Todd and his wife, a video camera. Todd never confirmed or denied any of the sex/drug related allegations. Todd was not charged under law or penalised by the Olympic Committee.

Ethical Considerations
There are a number of ethical issues surrounding the two cases. Whilst Fahey and Todd were embroiled in different scenarios, there are similar principles at stake. The focal one is the use of covert recording equipment. It is startling to learn that “hidden cameras have been contentious in journalistic practice since their first use almost a century ago” (Wilkins & Coleman, 2005, p.36). A recent notorious ‘hidden camera’ case relates to the American ABC television channel being sued successfully by Food Lion after ABC infiltrated the workforce in 1992. To the public this meant justice was served because media seemed to stop at nothing to get/manufacture a story. However, for journalists it meant that disallowing hidden cameras was counterproductive to highlighting a public health matter which needed addressing (Wilkins & Coleman, 2005).

This illustrates that the media and its publics are at odds over what is acceptable regarding means of gathering...
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