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Tabloid Bioethics

By Michael Cook

Tabloid journalism gives bioethical issues the social relevance that academic debates lack.

By the time you read this, the volcanic ash from the eruption of public outrage over phone-hacking in Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids may have dissipated. I am writing this the day after he appeared before a committee of the British Parliament and acknowledged that it was “the most humble day of my life”. The ethics of his tabloid newspapers may have mortally wounded his company.

Factoids, trendoids, paranoids and haemorrhoids: tabloids keep good company in the dictionary. There has never been any secret about the degrading moral qualities of the News of the World and competitors like The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. They were bottom-feeders sucking up everything that was tasteless, prurient, salacious and vulgar in British life. Their lifeblood was the invasion of celebrities’ privacy.

But, as a reporter of things bioethical, I’d like to put in a good word for the tabloids on their day of shame, or SHAME!!!! as they might put it. At this juncture, I feel compelled to insert a disclaimer: neither I nor any family member hold, nor have I or any family members ever held, shares in any company related to News Corp. With that over, let me attempt to rinse a bit of the dirt from the besmirched reputation of yellow journalism.

All ethical disciplines, especially bioethics, are about how people should act. They involve a great deal of theorising in academic journals like Bioethics, the Journal of Medical Ethics and the Hastings Center Report. There are vigorously competing theories – principalism, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, natural law ethics, Kantian deontology and so on.

No matter which corner of the ring the professional bioethicist is in, someone else is in the other corner, gloves up, spoiling for a fight to the death over the legitimacy of preference utilitarianism. But the rush of blood in an academic bunfight all too often bleaches out the real-life people behind bioethical debates – the deathbed gasps of your grandmother, your neighbour’s lingering battle with cancer, the childlessness of the woman in the next cubicle. And the London tabloids have no peer in conveying the human consequences of dry bioethics debates.

Bioethicists do pencil sketches that highlight features relevant to their particular theory. But the best tabloid reporters paint in oils, adding as much colour and lurid detail as possible.

Some are better than others, of course. I cannot recall (there’s a familiar line!) ever sourcing a story for my bioethics newsletter from the News of the World. But the Daily Mail, which has positioned itself as a “middle-market” tabloid, consistently does an excellent job of giving a three-dimensional picture of ethical conundrums.

Let me give an example. Last year a headline in the Daily Mail announced: “I’m trying for Bin Laden’s grandchild: Briton’s surrogacy deal with son of terror chief”. After reading this story, anyone with a bit of grey matter must wonder whether the desire for a child is enough to justify surrogacy.

Three people were involved. Twenty-nine-year-old Omar bin Laden, fourth son of Osama, is as rich as Croesus. But for some reason he ended up as the sixth husband of 54-year-old Jane Felix-Browne, now known as Zaina Mohamad al-Sabah bin Laden after her conversion to Islam. She is a grandmother who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has three adult children from her previous relationships.

Zaina’s biological clock rang midnight long ago, but the couple wanted a baby. So they engaged 24-year-old Louise Pollard, a former pole-dancer whose ambition is to become Britain’s most prolific surrogate.

The Daily Mail reported that Ms Pollard had time for recreation at a secret bolt-hole in the Middle East. “At one point I was sitting there playing Call of Duty on the PlayStation with Omar and I just sat there and thought, I’m playing video games with Osama Bin Laden’s son! How random is that?”

It’s fashionable to be non-judgemental (except about the absolute evil of phone-hacking) but surely the stability and maturity of these three amigos deserves to be “interrogated”, to use a word from bioethics jargon. The tabloids do, implicitly; the journals don’t.

A good tabloid reporter gets people to talk and talk and talk. This spew of consciousness is not judged or theorised. It’s served up juicy and raw.

But sometimes, perhaps not too often but certainly sometimes, tabloids make you think.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.