The media provide an essential vehicle for freedom of expression globally. Media companies can also be justifiably proud of the 'fourth estate' function journalists have fulfilled for generations in publicising human rights abuses by governments and others. More recently, the media's scope has extended to shining a spotlight on instances of human rights wrongdoing by multinational companies - ranging from allegations of mining or oil firms fuelling conflict, retail brands exploiting child labour, pharmaceutical firms conducting unethical clinical trials, through to alleged charges that internet companies have divulged the names of political dissidents to government regimes.
This year, the media's role in advancing and promoting human rights has never seemed more relevant, as we witnessed the Arab Spring uprisings unfold, and realised the invaluable contribution of satellite and on-line broadcasting in furthering the democracy movements.
Yet until the News International phone-hacking scandal resurfaced this year, it could be said that we had lost sight of the fact that media organisations are major multinational businesses, just as capable of committing human rights abuses when poorly governed, as any other business. What was the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone if not a violation of the right to privacy?
Following the News of the World's closure on 4 July 2011, there has been some coverage of the potential for charges to be brought against News Corporation under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in relation to alleged acts of bribery of public officials by News International staff in the UK. Much less however has been written about the relevance to News Corporation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, or the newly updated and closely aligned, OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
The Guiding Principles stipulate among other things that companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, and should act with due diligence to avoid infringing the rights of others and address any adverse impacts with which they are involved. In a week that has seen a third of News Corporation's shareholders vote against Rupert Murdoch's son, James Murdoch's re-election to the board, calls for robust independent oversight of the business, and the company agreeing to a 2 million settlement to Milly Dowler's family, the Guiding Principles could not be more relevant.
Both the UN Guiding Principles and the OECD Guidelines specifically call on companies to make a policy commitment to respect human rights; to carry out human rights due diligence in order to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their human rights impacts; and to provide for or co-operate through legitimate processes, in the remediation of any adverse human rights impacts they cause or to which they contribute.
Responding to these new emerging expectations, many global household names in the extractives, apparel, telecommunications and even the banking and financial services sectors can now point to an explicit human rights policy statement. But what of the media industry?
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that those newspapers that campaign for the abolition of human rights laws and standards, and encourage a negative perception of human rights among their readers, should have fallen behind the curve in this emerging area of responsible corporate practice. But how many of the others, less ideologically opposed to human rights, can honestly claim to have made a corporate policy commitment? How many of them carry out human rights due diligence, or intend to do so? And how many media giants communicate publicly about how they address their human rights impacts?
In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that triggered international reverberations in the industry, is it not time for media companies to start demonstrating their corporate responsibility to respect human rights by carrying out human rights due diligence? We think it is.
By Lucy Amis