This is an essay I wrote for my masters, for a module on ethics in journalism. I really enjoyed writing this essay as abortions rights is an issue I have a massive interest in.
Amelia Gentleman’s report, focusing on the difficulties women from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland face when seeking abortions, and having to travel to England to get an abortion, raises many ethical issues and concerns. The interviewing of women who have had abortions invades privacy in the name of the public interest and could intrude into grief or shock. The Guardian, being a left-of-centre/liberal newspaper takes a clearly biased angle in the reporting of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, focusing on the matter as a social justice issue and addressing how these laws impact women seeking abortions. Yet, the issue is also a criminal one-these women are breaking the law of their countries and the report has no focus on the pro-life lobby. So then, is Gentleman’s report objective, subjective or fair? Does it contain elements of the journalism of attachment? The story also raises the importance of maintaining protection of confidential sources, with no surnames given for any women interviewed who had an abortion and with Gentleman ending the article with a note on some surnames being changed. The article has been shared close to 10,000 times on social media and the Guardian in recent months, has increased coverage of abortion issues in Northern Ireland. Yet, the disparity between abortion law between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom has been ongoing for decades. Matters relating to the representation of women in journalism and the representation of Northern Ireland in the mainstream UK media during conflict and now in the post-conflict era, are areas highly worthy of consideration, when analysing the ethics of this article.
Abortion is a highly sensitive, polarising topic; more so in Northern Ireland, than any other region of the United Kingdom. The 1967 Abortion Act does not apply as it does in England, Scotland and Wales. The Offences against the Person Act 1861 is the main law applying in Northern Ireland. (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 2013) Section 58 of the 1861 Act makes it an offence to use drugs or instruments to procure abortion and Section 59 of the 1861 Act makes it an offence to be the supplier of drugs or instruments intended to cause abortion. An offence under Section 58 is punishable with life imprisonment and an offence under Section 59 is punishable with imprisonment up to 5 years (Legislation.gov.uk, 2016). In the Republic of Ireland, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, 1983 introduced a constitutional ban on abortion (Irish Statute Book, 2016). Abortion is a very intimate issue as it intersects into a personal health issue, sexual relations and the debate on when life begins. As Ireland, North and South criminalises women who seek abortion, this adds extra layers of shame and sensitivity which a reporter must be aware of, when seeking to report on abortion in Ireland. From the very first line of Gentleman’s article, it can be seen that she has had these issues of invasion into privacy at the fore:
“By 10.30am, 10 minutes before her first appointment, Catriona is already grey-faced with exhaustion and so tired that talking is a struggle; her words fall out on top of each other” (Gentleman, 2015).
The norms of reporting would be to name Catriona’s full name, her age and where she is from. Yet to do so in this instance, would identify her to her home community and thus shame her publicly. There is also the risk of arrest. A 21-year woman is currently facing trial in Northern Ireland for seeking to procure her own abortion and aid another woman to ‘miscarry’ (Fenton, 2016). Gentleman would not have been able to tell these women’s stories without providing high levels of anonymity. She later writes of Catriona “like all the women I spoke to for this article, did not want to use her real name” (Gentleman, 2015). There is strong adherence to the ethics of the NUJ Code of Conduct’s guidelines on intruding into an individual’s private life. The Code states that a journalist should not intrude “unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest” (National Union of Journalists, 2013). The Editor’s Code of Practice states in clause 3, Privacy that all are “entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence” (Editorscode.org.uk, 2016). Clause 5, Intrusion into grief or shock directs that “enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively” (Editorscode.org.uk, 2016).
Gentleman’s piece is not hard news, it is an in-depth feature written in a very emotive, angled manner. There is extensive usage of lengthy quotes which convey emotions extremely well such as the opening line of the second paragraph:
“A lot of bad things have happened to me in my life, but this has been the worst” (Gentleman, 2015).
The biased angle is most notable in Gentleman’s choice of interviewees. These being women who travel to England to terminate pregnancies, women who carry out their own abortions via pills, the manager of a British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic, the founder of Abortion Support Network, two women who run websites which take orders for abortion inducing pills and a couple who host women travelling to Manchester for abortions in their home. This highlights the clear moral judgment Gentleman is making via her piece, that it is an issue of social injustice and wrong that women cannot have abortions in Ireland. There is no one interviewed that offers an opposing view, or that supports the current laws on abortion. This approach is markedly different to a BBC Three documentary which interviewed pro-choice and pro-life activists and individuals (Abortion: Ireland’s Guilty Secret?, 2015). Broadcast media in the UK is much more regulated than print media, with state regulation by Ofcom. Print media is able to take strong stances and The Guardian’s bias is reinforced further by an editorial calling for change in the law (the Guardian, 2016).
In Gentleman’s piece, the governments of Ireland, North and South are presented as more at fault than the women travelling for abortion, who are whether one agrees that they should be or not, criminals. The article details women travelling to England for abortions and provides information on aid women can get to fund an abortion via the Abortion Support Network. It also details that Mifepristone and Misoprostol can be bought online and taken in order to produce a miscarriage. So the article not only reports that women are breaking the law and acquiring abortions, but it could be argued, increasing awareness for other women in Ireland to do so. The Guardian it can also be argued, is justified in taking the side of the women who are travelling to England for abortion when considering the context in the rest of the United Kingdom and throughout Europe. In England, Scotland and Wales women can access abortion advice and services easily, via the National Health Service. Research carried out by Amnesty International found that abortion law in Northern Ireland is the harshest in Europe (Amnesty International USA, 2015). In 2015, a United Nations Committee assessing the state of human rights throughout the United Kingdom, raised Northern Ireland’s abortion laws as a human rights violation (BelfastTelegraph.co.uk, 2015). Additionally, the Belfast High Court ruled in November 2015 that the current abortion law is a breach of human rights (BBC News, 2016). This highlights that elements of the State, specifically the law, are in contradiction with each other. The disparity with law in the rest of the UK and Europe, the contradictions within the Northern Irish State and the severity of the ‘abortion issue’- women throughout the island of Ireland “had almost 25,000 abortions in England and Wales over the last five years” (The Detail, 2015) justify The Guardian portraying women breaking the law and acquiring abortions as a public interest issue and one a criminal one. The Guardian’s coverage echoes the NUJ Code of Conduct which champions “the right of the public to be informed” (National Union of Journalists, 2013).
It is one thing to have a public interest justification and to pursue journalism that holds the State and the government to account but quite another to take within the reporting of the limited abortion rights in Northern Ireland to take on a campaigning stance. There are certainly elements of the ‘journalism of attachment’ to The Guardian’s coverage of abortion in Northern Ireland. Whilst the term journalism of attachment is most frequently associated with war reporting due to it being coined by Martin Bell in 1997 when speaking on his experiences of reporting on conflicts, describing the journalism of attachment as “a journalism that cares as well as knows…and will not stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, the victim and the oppressor” (Foerstel, 2001), it can be applied generally to all reporting. Evidence of The Guardian taking on a campaigning role is seen in the frequency of the focus of coverage on abortion in Northern Ireland. Going to the ‘Northern Ireland’ section of The Guardian’s website in 2016 there has been 16 articles that focus on abortion in Northern Ireland. Given at the time of writing, it is currently the 20th day in January, that accounts for a sizable amount of The Guardian’s Northern Ireland coverage. To show the extent of this coverage, consider the level of coverage given to the appointment of Northern Ireland’s new First Minister Arlene Foster-and in the entire history of the State, the first woman, who took office in January 2016. There are only 4 articles focusing on Foster and one of them is in relation to abortion rights in Northern Ireland, when Foster declares there will be no extension of the 1967 Act. In one week alone in January, specifically the week beginning 4th January and ending 10th January, there are 13 articles about abortion posted; this can easily be seen to be The Guardian’s core campaigning week especially as it culminates in an editorial on abortion in Northern Ireland on 7th January “The Guardian view on abortion: Northern Ireland’s shame” (The Guardian, 2016). This editorial is not merely observing the situation, it is commenting on it and clearly making a call for change. The closing paragraph states:
“Several women who had an abortion relayed to the Guardian the burden of living with painful secrets, and the dread, or the experience, of having that secret betrayed. The concern of the old political order may very well be to lock this shame culture in place. In doing so, however, it brings nothing but shame on Northern Ireland” (The Guardian, 2016). Clearly this being an editorial, it is subjective. However, The Guardian’s wider reporting of abortion in Northern Ireland and Ireland is if not wholly subjective, containing strong elements of subjective journalism, mixed with elements of objective journalism. The objective elements can be seen in the perhaps overly obvious evidence that of course, all reports are based on factual reality but the objectivity seeps in when considering the biased angle and agenda of said reporting. The Guardian’s coverage of abortion does not even match with reporter Jane Merrick’s assessment of objectivity and fairness:
“When I sit down to write a story I never think, “is this objective?” But I’m always aware of being fair and balanced and having both sides of a story. I’m not sure you can be objective. I’ve never really thought about it, to be honest” (Harcup, 2015).
The Guardian’s abortion coverage could not be called fair, balanced nor does it give both sides of the story. Yet, this is only a negative if you believe print media’s only role is to report the facts, to report the world as it is and not try to change the world in any manner. The entire concept of the objectivity norm has been frequently challenged with claims it is impossible to achieve and in proving futile in moral conflicts between right and wrong (Harcup, 2015). Indeed, this notion of as journalists having a duty to not just record the wrongs of our times, but challenge them is not merely confined to print media. Veteran Channel 4 reporter Jon Snow stands out especially as a broadcaster who offers a compelling riposte to the idea that quality journalism must be entirely detached:
“Look, there is no such as a neutral human being,” he says. “I’m not dogmatically or doctrinally or party-politically motivated but, yes, I am political and I think that the best journalists in the world are. It means being engaged in society, and wanting to change the world. I’m a hack who wants to change the world” (Usborne, 2014).
The truly startling aspect of The Guardian’s coverage of that this hyerfocus on Northern Ireland’s abortion laws is only happening in 2016. Northern Ireland has solidly been a region of the United Kingdom since 1921 and it is 49 years since the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced in Scotland, England and Wales. Of course, Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998 was within the UK media and internationally, known primarily for the conflict; ‘The Troubles which claimed over 3600 lives, injured and traumatised many others and had left Northern Ireland to this day, a deeply divided and sectarian society (Bbc.co.uk, 2013). With so many issues relating to killings unresolved, across all factions-republican paramilitary, loyalist paramilitary and British army murders, understandably even in peace time, the political and media discourse has been heavily focused on the past. However, the Good Friday Agreement will be 18 years this spring; an entire generation has now grown up in Northern Ireland with absolutely no lived experience of The Troubles. It is notable that in recent years’ issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage have become increasingly dominant in discourse.
Simply, when war occurs, war dominates the agenda and concerns of political and media actors. When people are being killed, understandably, concern for social issues and issues that stretch beyond the green and orange framework of the conflict is extremely low. When considering the ethics of the representation of post-conflict Northern Ireland in UK media and thus when assessing the ethics of reporting on abortion law disparity and understanding why the issue has been largely ignored by the British media to 2016, it is crucial to realise the gendered elements of the conflict. Figures based on academic research by Malcolm Sutton record that during the Troubles 3145 men were killed and 321 women (Wesleyjohnston.com, n.d.). This data is highly useful as it shows that the core actors of the war, were male, with most people joining terrorist organisations or the British army, being men. There are a considerable number of women across both sides of the conflict who took up arms or joined State armies but by and large, women were confined to a ‘behind the scenes’ role carrying out their duties largely, as the norm in patriarchal societies as wives and mothers; very often holding together families. Thus, how can it be expected that a women’s issue such as abortion, would during conflict rise to any real dominance in political or media spheres? Crucially it must also be taken into account that during The Troubles, there was no devolved government in Northern Ireland, with direct rule from Westminster. The fact that Northern Ireland has just appointed its first female First Minister in 2016, highlights the increased barriers to women’s representation and issues in Northern Ireland. Just 14 of 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly are women (Purdy, 2010). The representation of women in journalism is very likely to be a key factor in the late focus by The Guardian on this matter. It should not be diminished that this kind of focus has only happened under Kath Viner, the first female editor of The Guardian.
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