Ethics@Work: News, gossip or intrigue?

Allegations of persistent personal impropriety can be of legitimate public interest where influential figures are concerned.

November 25, 2010 23:20
4 minute read.

ASHER MEIR 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The furor surrounding the charges of sexual misconduct on the part of Police Commander Uri Bar Lev, just as he is being considered for elevation to Police Commissioner, raises quite a few fundamental ethical issues. The issues begin with the conduct of Bar Lev towards the complainants; if the claims are baseless as Bar Lev claims, the issues continue with their conduct towards him.

How we view the seriousness of the charges themselves has a direct bearing on a question of journalistic ethics: How newsworthy are the charges and countercharges? Do they cross the line from mere gossip to something with a genuine public interest? The leaks from the investigation appear to be a very serious ethical breach, which threaten the privacy of all concerned, the ability of Bar Lev to get a fair hearing, and the reputation of the criminal justice system as a whole. It would be strangely reassuring to believe that the leaks from the investigation are complete fabrications made up by journalists from whole cloth, compared to believing that the relatively few and senior individuals who are privy to investigation details are disclosing them to the press. Sadly, the disclaimers from the investigator’s spokesperson have been suspiciously perfunctory.

At the same time, there can be no doubt that the coverage of the supposedly secret interrogations is not very reliable. As I write, one fairly reputable news site announces that “In the polygraph interrogation, Bar Lev was found to have told the truth to all questions he was asked,” while on another of similar repute we find: “Polygraph: Bar Lev did not tell the truth on some of the questions.”

Even if the claims are well-founded and newsworthy, questions have been raised about the ethical validity of the motivation for the charges. Is internal police politics behind the timing of these complaints? If so, is it proper to disclose even true and relevant damaging information about someone if the only motivation is personal advancement, for example promotion within the police department? It is impossible to deal here with all of these issues, but I want to address two of the more controversial ones: newsworthiness and motivation.

I consider the allegations against Bar Lev fundamentally newsworthy. Some time ago a leading IDF commander was sighted in a seedy Tel Aviv nightclub, and the fact was promptly reported by a newsman who frequented the same club. This was a totally un-newsworthy event and an unjournalistic disclosure. There is no impropriety involved in spending time in a nightclub, and in any case army commanders are not charged with enforcing and upholding the law; rather, they have the same responsibility as ordinary citizens to be law-abiding.

By comparison, some of the allegations against Bar Lev involve criminal acts, and others are breaches of private ethics which would not justify disciplinary action against him but are certainly relevant when considering whether this is the person who should stand at the pinnacle of the country’s primary law enforcement organization. There can be no question that much of the coverage has crossed the line into the lurid, but the reports are fundamentally newsworthy.

The question of newsworthiness is controversial only at the practical level; it is widely accepted that newspapers shouldn’t report gossip about private citizens. The issue of motivation, by contrast, is controversial even at the philosophical level. Does an unethical motivation nullify an otherwise ethical act? If the public deserves to know about the allegations against Bar Lev, is it an impropriety to let them know only when it will help you get appointed Police Commissioner? There is no space here to get involved in the deeper philosophical issues of ethics and motivation, but for the purpose of this case my answer is: this is in itself dependent on the question of newsworthiness. Some information may lack public interest if it relates to a police attaché in Washington, but be relevant if it relates to a leading candidate for Police Commissioner.

I may prefer to suffer my indignities in silence when my attacker is a private citizen, but be unable to bear seeing him be a leading public figure – particularly a law enforcer.

Much undeserved damage has been done by the leaks, and the claimed leaks, from Bar Lev’s investigation; based on the information known so far, it is not possible to say with certainty that he has done anything worthy of public censure at all. But not all of the information is mere lurid gossip; some of the allegations are in themselves worthy of public consideration, to the extent that they have a reliable source, and the motivation to prevent someone you consider a scoundrel from occupying a powerful office is not an inherently unethical one.

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