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With the Leveson Report just out, and the Year of Faith ongoing, I went back to the document Inter Mirifica, the Decree on the Media of Social Communications from the Second Vatican Council, promulgated on 4 December 1963.

Double Octuple Newspaper Press  by Sue Clarke

It has to be said that this is not the most celebrated of the documents from Vatican II. Many commentators think that it was not creative enough, not sensitive to the moment, not aware of the need for the Church to open out to the world. But it’s interesting to read – fifty years later – the two main paragraphs that concern what we would now call ‘media ethics’ (see paragraphs 5 and 12 copied below).

The primary concern is to protect the freedom of the press, and to highlight the importance of a free media for the common good. I don’t know the background to the document well, but one of the defining features of the political landscape will have been the Cold War, and the multiple threats to freedom that were emerging in Eastern Bloc countries. The main worry for the Council fathers was not press intrusion but state intrusion. So they assert the ‘right to information’.

Nevertheless, this right is not absolute. It requires truth, justice, charity; respect for the laws of morality and the rights and dignity of individuals; and the manner of communication should be ‘proper and decent’. Public authority should protect this freedom of information, but it is also obliged ‘to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media’. The language is almost archaic; the meaning is clear.

So you can’t move from Inter Mirifica to a concrete conclusion about which recommendations in the Leveson report to implement, but there are some helpful principles here which seem as relevant as they were fifty years ago.

Here are the relevant paragraphs:

5. It is, however, especially necessary that all parties concerned should adopt for themselves a proper moral outlook on the use of these media, especially with respect to certain questions that have been vigorously aired in our day.

The first question has to do with “information,” as it is called, or the search for and reporting of the news. Now clearly this has become most useful and very often necessary for the progress of contemporary society and for achieving closer links among men. The prompt publication of affairs and events provides every individual with a fuller, continuing acquaintance with them, and thus all can contribute more effectively to the common good and more readily promote and advance the welfare of the entire civil society. Therefore, in society men have a right to information, in accord with the circumstances in each case, about matters concerning individuals or the community. The proper exercise of this right demands, however, that the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity. In addition, the manner in which the news is communicated should be proper and decent. This means that in both the search for news and in reporting it, there must be full respect for the laws of morality and for the legitimate rights and dignity of the individual. For not all knowledge is helpful, but “it is charity that edifies.”

12. The public authority, in these matters, is bound by special responsibilities in view of the common good, to which these media are ordered. The same authority has, in virtue of its office, the duty of protecting and safeguarding true and just freedom of information, a freedom that is totally necessary for the welfare of contemporary society, especially when it is a question of freedom of the press. It ought also to encourage spiritual values, culture and the fine arts and guarantee the rights of those who wish to use the media. Moreover, public authority has the duty of helping those projects which, though they are certainly most beneficial for young people, cannot otherwise be undertaken.

Lastly, the same public authority, which legitimately concerns itself with the health of the citizenry, is obliged, through the promulgation and careful enforcement of laws, to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media. Such vigilance in no wise restricts the freedom of individuals or groups, especially where there is a lack of adequate precaution on the part of those who are professionally engaged in using these media.

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Dante and Sartre made guest appearances on Celebrity Big Brother at the beginning of the week. The layout and decor of the new Big Brother house are inspired, say the producers, by the writings of these luminaries:

Executive Producer Shirley Jones today revealed that the whole series has been inspired by Dante’s Inferno including the decor of the house itself.

She said: “The famous line from Dante’s Inferno is ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’, which has inspired much of what we have done to the house, particularly the entrance which is dark and cavernous with flaming walls. When the celebrities arrive in the house on Sunday night they will definitely wonder what is in store for them, it looks incredibly different from previous years”.

In the living area the Dante’s Inferno theme continues with gilded panels, black walls and furniture in rich reds and dark wood. There are some luxurious touches too such as faux fur pelts draped over the sofas, cushions emblazoned with diamante skulls and ornate wall sconces illuminating macabre sculptures.

Jones continued “As well as Dante we have been hugely influenced by Sartre’s line ‘Hell is other people’, and the house reflects this. Whilst the flames and dark colours might look a bit hellish to some, sometimes your actual hell is the people you’re with so we have removed some of the doors to make everything more open plan, there are very few areas to go to if someone needs to grab five minutes of peace and quiet.”

Just to set the record straight: Sartre didn’t put forward the idea that ‘hell is others’ as a philosophical thesis – he put these words into the mouth of one of his characters in the play Huis Clos. In isolation, this line, which has haunted Sartre, gives the impression that he hated other people and believed that human beings would be happiest cut off from all company. This is nonsense. In the drama of the play, and in the context of his whole philosophy, Sartre is saying something quite different.

In his view, a recurring temptation we face as human beings in society is the desire to live solely in order to please others, to live up to the expectations that others impose on us – expectations that we willingly accept and internalise. So our whole life can become a charade, wearing a mask, doing a dance before the gaze of others. It’s an analysis of the psychology of fame. The more we succeed in living up to their expectations, the happier we seem to be – but it is a trap, and we end up losing our freedom, we become defined by the demands that other people have imposed on us. This is living in ‘bad faith’; there is a lack of authenticity, a lack of honesty. Another more traditional word to describe this human characteristic would be ‘vanity’. So Sartre is not quite as radical or novel as he might appear.

Berlin press pack by Downing Street.

A press pack in Berlin

Sartre doesn’t think that the answer is to escape from all human relationships and responsibilities, or to do what we please without any regard for the opinion of others. This is just pure selfishness – which Sartre never advocated. He thinks we should be more authentic; we should take responsibility for our actions and not pretend that we are completely defined by the external pressures that are put upon us; we should develop relationships, as it were, out of love and freedom and not because of a dysfunctional need to take on a certain appearance in the eyes of others.

I’m not defending his whole outlook here. But there is some truth in this suggestion that we can get trapped in the image of ourselves that we see reflected back to us from others.

The opposite of vanity, one could say, would be a kind of self-possession, an ease with others, a freedom to love without worrying about how that love was being perceived.

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