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TEDxHousesOfParliament

David Puttnam: Does the media have a "duty of care"?

June 20, 2013

In this thoughtful talk, David Puttnam asks a big question about the media: Does it have a moral imperative to create informed citizens, to support democracy? His solution for ensuring media responsibility is bold, and you might not agree. But it's certainly a question worth asking ... (Filmed at TEDxHousesofParliament.)

David Puttnam - Producer
After a much-awarded career as a film producer, Lord David Puttnam now works at the intersection of education, media and policy. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'd like to start, if I may,
00:12
with the story of the Paisley snail.
00:14
On the evening of the 26th of August, 1928,
00:16
May Donoghue took a train from Glasgow
00:20
to the town of Paisley, seven miles east of the city,
00:22
and there at the Wellmeadow Café,
00:25
she had a Scots ice cream float,
00:27
a mix of ice cream and ginger beer
00:30
bought for her by a friend.
00:32
The ginger beer came in a brown, opaque bottle
00:34
labeled "D. Stevenson, Glen Lane, Paisley."
00:36
She drank some of the ice cream float,
00:40
but as the remaining ginger beer was poured
00:42
into her tumbler,
00:44
a decomposed snail
00:45
floated to the surface of her glass.
00:48
Three days later, she was admitted
00:50
to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary
00:52
and diagnosed with severe gastroenteritis
00:53
and shock.
00:56
The case of Donoghue vs. Stevenson that followed
00:57
set a very important legal precedent:
01:01
Stevenson, the manufacturer of the ginger beer,
01:03
was held to have a clear duty of care
01:05
towards May Donoghue,
01:08
even though there was no contract between them,
01:09
and, indeed, she hadn't even bought the drink.
01:11
One of the judges, Lord Atkin, described it like this:
01:14
You must take care to avoid acts or omissions
01:17
which you can reasonably foresee
01:20
would be likely to injure your neighbor.
01:22
Indeed, one wonders that without a duty of care,
01:26
how many people would have had to suffer
01:28
from gastroenteritis before Stevenson
eventually went out of business.
01:30
Now please hang on to that Paisley snail story,
01:33
because it's an important principle.
01:36
Last year, the Hansard Society,
a nonpartisan charity
01:39
which seeks to strengthen parliamentary democracy
01:41
and encourage greater public involvement in politics
01:43
published, alongside their annual audit
01:47
of political engagement, an additional section
01:49
devoted entirely to politics and the media.
01:52
Here are a couple of rather depressing observations
01:55
from that survey.
01:58
Tabloid newspapers do not appear
02:00
to advance the political citizenship of their readers,
02:02
relative even to those
02:05
who read no newspapers whatsoever.
02:06
Tabloid-only readers are twice as likely to agree
02:09
with a negative view of politics
02:12
than readers of no newspapers.
02:14
They're not just less politically engaged.
02:17
They are consuming media that reinforces
02:19
their negative evaluation of politics,
02:21
thereby contributing to a fatalistic and cynical
02:23
attitude to democracy and their own role within it.
02:26
Little wonder that the report concluded that
02:30
in this respect, the press, particularly the tabloids,
02:32
appear not to be living up to the importance
02:35
of their role in our democracy.
02:37
Now I doubt if anyone in this room would seriously
02:40
challenge that view.
02:42
But if Hansard are right, and they usually are,
02:43
then we've got a very serious problem on our hands,
02:46
and it's one that I'd like to spend the next 10 minutes
02:48
focusing upon.
02:51
Since the Paisley snail,
02:53
and especially over the past decade or so,
02:54
a great deal of thinking has been developed
02:57
around the notion of a duty of care
02:59
as it relates to a number of aspects of civil society.
03:01
Generally a duty of care arises when one individual
03:03
or a group of individuals undertakes an activity
03:06
which has the potential to cause harm to another,
03:09
either physically, mentally or economically.
03:11
This is principally focused on obvious areas,
03:14
such as our empathetic response
to children and young people,
03:16
to our service personnel, and
to the elderly and infirm.
03:19
It is seldom, if ever, extended
to equally important arguments
03:22
around the fragility of our
present system of government,
03:26
to the notion that honesty, accuracy and impartiality
03:31
are fundamental to the process of building
03:34
and embedding an informed,
03:36
participatory democracy.
03:38
And the more you think about it,
03:41
the stranger that is.
03:42
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure
03:44
of opening a brand new school
03:45
in the northeast of England.
03:47
It had been renamed by its pupils as Academy 360.
03:49
As I walked through their impressive,
03:52
glass-covered atrium,
03:54
in front of me, emblazoned on the wall
03:55
in letters of fire
03:57
was Marcus Aurelius's famous injunction:
03:59
If it's not true, don't say it;
04:02
if it's not right, don't do it.
04:05
The head teacher saw me staring at it,
04:08
and he said, "Oh, that's our school motto."
04:10
On the train back to London,
04:13
I couldn't get it out of my mind.
04:14
I kept thinking, can it really have taken us
04:16
over 2,000 years to come to terms
04:19
with that simple notion
04:21
as being our minimum expectation of each other?
04:23
Isn't it time that we develop this concept
04:26
of a duty of care
04:28
and extended it to include a care
04:30
for our shared but increasingly
endangered democratic values?
04:33
After all, the absence of a duty of care
04:36
within many professions
04:38
can all too easily amount to
accusations of negligence,
04:39
and that being the case, can we be
really comfortable with the thought
04:42
that we're in effect being negligent
04:45
in respect of the health of our own societies
04:47
and the values that necessarily underpin them?
04:50
Could anyone honestly suggest, on the evidence,
04:53
that the same media which
Hansard so roundly condemned
04:56
have taken sufficient care to avoid behaving
04:59
in ways which they could reasonably have foreseen
05:02
would be likely to undermine or even damage
05:06
our inherently fragile democratic settlement.
05:08
Now there will be those who will argue
05:11
that this could all too easily drift into a form
05:13
of censorship, albeit self-censorship,
05:14
but I don't buy that argument.
05:16
It has to be possible
05:18
to balance freedom of expression
05:20
with wider moral and social responsibilities.
05:23
Let me explain why by taking the example
05:26
from my own career as a filmmaker.
05:28
Throughout that career, I never accepted
05:30
that a filmmaker should set about putting
05:32
their own work outside or above what he or she
05:34
believed to be a decent set of values
05:37
for their own life, their own family,
05:39
and the future of the society in which we all live.
05:42
I'd go further.
05:46
A responsible filmmaker should
never devalue their work
05:47
to a point at which it becomes less than true
05:50
to the world they themselves wish to inhabit.
05:53
As I see it, filmmakers, journalists, even bloggers
05:56
are all required to face up to the social expectations
05:59
that come with combining the
intrinsic power of their medium
06:02
with their well-honed professional skills.
06:06
Obviously this is not a mandated duty,
06:09
but for the gifted filmmaker
and the responsible journalist
06:12
or even blogger, it strikes me
as being utterly inescapable.
06:14
We should always remember that our notion
06:18
of individual freedom and
its partner, creative freedom,
06:21
is comparatively new
06:24
in the history of Western ideas,
06:25
and for that reason, it's often undervalued
06:28
and can be very quickly undermined.
06:30
It's a prize easily lost,
06:32
and once lost, once surrendered,
06:34
it can prove very, very hard to reclaim.
06:36
And its first line of defense
06:39
has to be our own standards,
06:41
not those enforced on us by a censor or legislation,
06:43
our own standards and our own integrity.
06:47
Our integrity as we deal with those
06:49
with whom we work
06:51
and our own standards as we operate within society.
06:52
And these standards of ours
06:56
need to be all of a piece with
a sustainable social agenda.
06:57
They're part of a collective responsibility,
07:01
the responsibility of the artist or the journalist
07:03
to deal with the world as it really is,
07:05
and this, in turn, must go hand in hand
07:07
with the responsibility of those governing society
07:10
to also face up to that world,
07:12
and not to be tempted to misappropriate
07:14
the causes of its ills.
07:17
Yet, as has become strikingly clear
07:19
over the last couple of years,
07:22
such responsibility has to a very great extent
07:24
been abrogated by large sections of the media.
07:26
And as a consequence, across the Western world,
07:29
the over-simplistic policies of the parties of protest
07:31
and their appeal to a largely disillusioned,
07:34
older demographic,
07:37
along with the apathy and obsession with the trivial
07:38
that typifies at least some of the young,
07:40
taken together, these and other similarly
07:42
contemporary aberrations
07:44
are threatening to squeeze the life
07:46
out of active, informed debate and engagement,
07:48
and I stress active.
07:52
The most ardent of libertarians might argue
07:54
that Donoghue v. Stevenson should
have been thrown out of court
07:57
and that Stevenson would eventually
have gone out of business
08:00
if he'd continued to sell ginger beer with snails in it.
08:02
But most of us, I think, accept some small role
08:05
for the state to enforce a duty of care,
08:09
and the key word here is reasonable.
08:12
Judges must ask, did they take reasonable care
08:14
and could they have reasonably foreseen
08:18
the consequences of their actions?
08:19
Far from signifying overbearing state power,
08:22
it's that small common sense test of reasonableness
08:25
that I'd like us to apply to those in the media
08:28
who, after all, set the tone and the content
08:31
for much of our democratic discourse.
08:33
Democracy, in order to work, requires that
08:36
reasonable men and women take
the time to understand and debate
08:39
difficult, sometimes complex issues,
08:42
and they do so in an atmosphere which strives
08:44
for the type of understanding that leads to,
08:47
if not agreement, then at least a productive
08:49
and workable compromise.
08:51
Politics is about choices,
08:53
and within those choices, politics is about priorities.
08:56
It's about reconciling conflicting preferences
09:00
wherever and whenever possibly based on fact.
09:02
But if the facts themselves are distorted,
09:08
the resolutions are likely only
to create further conflict,
09:10
with all the stresses and strains on society
09:14
that inevitably follow.
09:16
The media have to decide:
09:18
Do they see their role as being to inflame
09:20
or to inform?
09:23
Because in the end, it comes down to a combination
09:25
of trust and leadership.
09:28
Fifty years ago this week,
President John F. Kennedy
09:31
made two epoch-making speeches,
09:33
the first on disarmament
and the second on civil rights.
09:35
The first led almost immediately
09:38
to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,
09:40
and the second led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act,
09:42
both of which represented giant leaps forward.
09:45
Democracy, well-led and well-informed,
09:49
can achieve very great things,
09:51
but there's a precondition.
09:54
We have to trust that those making those decisions
09:55
are acting in the best interest not of themselves
09:59
but of the whole of the people.
10:01
We need factually-based options,
10:03
clearly laid out,
10:06
not those of a few powerful
10:07
and potentially manipulative corporations
10:08
pursuing their own frequently narrow agendas,
10:11
but accurate, unprejudiced information
10:13
with which to make our own judgments.
10:15
If we want to provide decent, fulfilling lives
10:18
for our children and our children's children,
10:20
we need to exercise to the
very greatest degree possible
10:22
that duty of care for a vibrant,
10:25
and hopefully a lasting, democracy.
10:27
Thank you very much for listening to me.
10:30
(Applause)
10:32

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David Puttnam - Producer
After a much-awarded career as a film producer, Lord David Puttnam now works at the intersection of education, media and policy.

Why you should listen

David Puttnam spent thirty years as an independent producer of award-winning films, including The Mission, The Killing Fields, Local Hero, Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone and Memphis Belle. His films have won ten Oscars, 25 Baftas and the Palme D'Or at Cannes.  

He retired from film production in 1998 to focus on his work in public policy as it relates to education, the environment, and the creative and communications industries. In 1998 he founded the National Teaching Awards, which he chaired until 2008, also serving as the first Chair of the General Teaching Council from 2000 to 2002. From July 2002 to July 2009 he was president of UNICEF UK, playing a key role in promoting UNICEF’s advocacy and awareness objectives.

 

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