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Media critics of speak up miss the point

Business ethics expert Jane Arnott on the New Zealand media’s baffling attitude towards truth-tellers… 

Covid-19 presents a new context for speaking up. But while Governments around the world place emphasis and encourage people to report rule breaking and breaches of self isolation  – the media, almost universally, have decided to take a different tack.

As an industry that maximizes the gains and derives huge benefit from gaining information through whistleblowing and reporting it is ironic that the most dominant media perspective is blunt and critical.

In NZ the media commentary around the act of reporting rule breaking runs the risk of becoming a deterrent akin to forcing hibernation upon even the most courageous black bear or grizzly amongst us.

Opinion articles referred to ‘dobbing in, there were references to NZ becoming  ‘a nation of narks’ and accusations of vigilante groups peering out through curtained windows.

Snitches and snitching also prevailed with pseudo Dr Suess-like genius.

One journalist and wannabe influencer announced from her media pedestal ‘it’s not my job to make certain everyone is abiding by the rules’.  Actually the point is more around doing the right thing rather than disputing whose job it is.

The BBC’s commentators also had their take, but wisely posed the issue as an ethical dilemma with the question, “is it civic duty or should people mind their own business?”

Thankfully a healthy proportion of New Zealanders decided it was the former – and civic minded reporting led to the number of calls being made to the official reporting lines quickly jumping to their thousands. And, importantly, the subsequent  initial process involved follow ups and encouragement – nothing too heavy handed or prosecutorial.

Again, the point is we can ill afford to turn a blind eye when a pandemic has the potential to throw so much chaos our way.

It is not, surely, an unreasonable request to contribute to the Covid-19 war effort to ‘stay home and stay safe’ by being observant, and then acting in good faith on what was seen.

Still, the view that encouraging reporting can be elevated to a morally distasteful act continued to gain ground with one carefully selected moral philosopher from the University of Sydney posing the question; “how effective is a policy that encourages people to turn on each other?”

Reporting and whistleblowing, desperately needs to be framed in far more positive, unifying and life- or work-saving terms.

In the heat of Covid-19 lockdowns, reporting offered the means to potentially save lives through targeting those who flout the stay-at-home and social isolation rules. This sits on the same spectrum as potentially saving jobs by targeting and reporting those in the workplace who commit fraud and practice wrongdoing.

But as long as the media only present – and tend to prefer – one perspective, then effective whistleblowing processes, as an integral part of ethical company culture, continue to face an uphill battle.

Just when unity and support is needed the media could benefit from pressing the pause button on some of their rhetoric.

Allow one contractor to believe its business as usual and to carry on with their work only encourages countless others to apply the rule ‘if its good enough for them its good enough for me’.

And, while being critical on the one hand, while leveraging sometimes dubiously sourced information on the other, the media and various commentators practice questionable double standards.

Whistleblowing is the outcome when communities of people at work, at home, in clubs and as members of professional bodies affirm and live by widely held values  such as honesty, compassion, integrity. It won’t happen overnight but more sustained effort, along with media support, is needed to convey the wisdom of speaking up rather than the folly of lying low.

Speaking up works to avert disaster – and throughout Covid-19 lockdowns the world over anything less could well be tragic.

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