Media ethics gets a chair

Media ethics gets a chair McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 6, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 14
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 32: 1999-2000 > April 6, 2000 > Media ethics gets a chair

Media ethics gets a chair

| Media ethics may seem like an oxymoron, admits Timothy Aitken, president of the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation. But he hopes McGill's new Beaverbrook Chair in Ethics, Media and Communications will help address the public's disillusionment with media and a host of ethical issues brought on by the rising popularity of the Internet.

"The media is a very changing environment, not least of all because of the Internet," says Aitken, who spent 15 years working in the news media. "Information is more open and also abused more than it has ever been."

The chair, which has received a $1.5 million endowment from the foundation, will reach across a variety of disciplines. They include law, religious studies, communications studies and library and information studies. Censorship, copyright matters, privacy on the Internet and how technology affects access to information are some of the areas the chair may examine.

On the latter subject, Professor Andy Large, of McGill's Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, wonders if the "new technologies are helping to bridge the gap of access to information between the haves and the have-nots or are they adding one more barrier to equal access to information and actually widening the gap?"

While the study of ethics is more commonly known in areas like medicine, very little work is being done in media, Aitken says. "It's time to form an opinion at the highest level, in a university environment that then begins to feed itself out in the real world."

He also sees a connection between democracy and the media. "You won't have a democratic country without a strong communications industry," he says. "It's very easy to get rid of democracy when people don't care."

Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian businessman, statesman and newspaper magnate, grew up in New Brunswick as William Maxwell Aitken. After moving to Britain, he bought the Daily Express and the Evening Standard and created the Sunday Express. He established the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation in 1960, four years before his death.

Aitken says setting up the Chair in Ethics, Media and Communications was a natural fit, given that part of the family fortune was made in media. "It seemed to me very appropriate that in Canada there should be something that strikes to the very origins of who he [Lord Beaverbrook] was as a man."

A McGill graduate and grandson of Lord Beaverbrook, Aitken expects the chair to be "someone who is a communicator and has lots of energy and is not frightened of controversy," he says. "I think there are people in different faculties who have expertise and you want someone who has the energy to get them excited enough to be involved with it."

Large thinks the new chair, a first in Canada, will demonstrate the importance of this area of research and increase McGill's profile. "It will put us on the map in this rather exciting cross-disciplinary area," he says.

The chair's success will also depend on its ability to be innovative. "It will only have longevity if it's on the cutting edge, if it's something people are inspired by," Aitken says. "It could start with academics and go wider."

Will Straw, director of the Graduate Program in Communications, thinks the new chair will generate public interest and could be used to bring attention to ethics issues in media and communications. "We can take advantage of McGill's reputation to bring these things to the public agenda," he says.

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