By Margo Kingston
January 14, 2003
by Margo Kingston, September 2002
When you think about ethics, by which I mean ‘professional standards of conduct’, your starting point has to be your own.
Just after I started work in the big smoke of Sydney many years ago, the Herald chief of staff told me in confidence that the paper was sending a reporter posing as a prospective student into a Sydney high school to report on the youth of today in today’s public education system. The editor was to pretend to be his father when enrolling him, but was too busy to do so. Could I pose as my colleagues aunt?
Weeks later, while the reporter was still at the school, another reporter stumbled upon the project and leaked it, resulting in political condemnation in the parliament and outrage from our readers and my colleagues. Thus I discovered that journalists in the journalists union were bound by a code of ethics.
This was the first time I’d heard of it. I had a duty, personal to me, to tell anyone I was speaking to for a story what my job was, unless the matter was of such compelling public interest that I was duty bound not to. Everyone in my industry believed that this was not a case where the exception applied.
The shock of the incident marked the beginning of my deep interest in journalistic ethics. I thought about my role in relationship to my readers, and my duties to assert my professional ethics to avoid abuse of power by my industry.
I was trained as a lawyer, not a journalist. I knew my ethical duties as a lawyer: My duty was not only to the client but to the court, and I should never knowingly use as evidence material I knew to be false. So I don’t agree with the idea that ethics are instinctive in all cases. Written principles are required, and they need to be vigorously communicated as a matter fundamental to your career.
I believe the principles should be general, not particular, as particularity breeds legalism and the dangerous belief that technical avoidance equals compliance with ethical duty. Every ethical code should include not only the principles to which adherence is required, but the reasons why. For ethics, in the end, is about ourself in relation to other individuals and to our society.
The elites are in relationship with the people, and professional ethics – by accountants, lawyers, engineers, clergymen, architects – are constraints on abuse of power by the elites. A sellout of ethics for money, power, or survival, weakens the stability of the polity itself.
In the early 1990s, a construction company sued an establishment Brisbane law firm for its costs in a prolonged Federal Court civil action. The firm had acted for a developer, since jailed, who instructed it to resist and delay an action for payment of a debt due for building a shopping centre by alleging fraud. There was no evidence for this accusation. The ethical duties of solicitors and barristers forbid them from pleading fraud without supporting evidence.
When the developer went into liquidation, the plaintiff bought its legal files for a pittance and sued the legal firm. The barrister involved was Ian Callinan QC, since appointed a High Court judge.
So, a former leader of the Queensland bar and a partner in Queensland’s best connected law firm were caught red-handed with their pants down.
The Queensland Law Society, a body backed by legislation to police the ethical standards required by solicitors, would not say whether or not it was examining the solicitor’s behaviour. It was confidential. And the society implied that it only acted on a complaint, not of its own motion. End of story. Read the rest of this entry »