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MPs urged to back conscience clause for journalists

15 January 2009

UK MPs are being urged by the union to give journalists a chance to report more responsibly by refusing unethical instructions from editors without losing their jobs.

The NUJ has been trying to persuade the Press Complaints Commission to adopt a conscience clause in journalists' contracts, to allow them to decline to undertake work they consider in breach of the union's Code of Conduct.

The PCC has refused union proposals to discuss the idea – though it insists that journalists should have its Code of Practice incorporated into their contracts of employment. This means that they will be liable to discipline or dismissal over their work, but cannot resist instructions from editors to work unethically.

The union has now put its case to the Commons' Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which is carrying out an inquiry into Press Standards, Privacy and Libel.

The NUJ's submission to the committee says a "conscience clause" would:

"…allow reporters who feel they are being pressured to produce material that is not supported by evidence, or whose reporting is being stretched beyond credulity in its presentation, to refuse that assignment.
"We believe that journalists are responsible for their work and are therefore entitled legally to refuse instructions they consider unethical."

The clause would protect journalists by giving them a case for unfair dismissal if they were sacked for refusing instructions. The submission also says that the PCC should be able to fine newspapers for breaches of the Code of Practice.

It says:

"The PCC adjudicates very few cases each year. To fine in those cases would rarely lead to more than five cases a year on present statistics, but since these would be the worst cases and ones where the PCC would have decided the newspaper had deliberately or recklessly breached the code, the fine would send out a message that the PCC has teeth and would be prepared to bite."

Tags: , ethics, pcc, code of conduct, conscience clause, unfair dismissal, regulation