Journalism's key battle is with its own integrity
A BRITISH journalist is kidnapped and subsequently released in Iraq; and across the UK, newsrooms thrill with empathy and outrage, in a reflex there-but-for-the-grace-of-God reaction that must grate on the nerves of the families of other groups whose lives are in danger in Iraq.
But even outside the small world of journalism, there’s a growing chill of concern that events like yesterday’s kidnap in Basra of the freelance journalist James Brandon - just 23 years old, and working on a story for the Sunday Telegraph - are becoming more common, and reflect a disturbing change in the relationship between journalists and the news they report.
The Iraq war has, of course, been a particularly bloody one for the news media. In the first phase of the conflict, western journalists faced a sharp choice between "embedding" themselves with the armed forces in order to gain maximum access to and protection from one side in the conflict, or acting independently, and accepting the high risk of being caught unprotected in sudden fire-fights and airborne attacks.
By the end of July 2003, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 20 journalists had died, including ITN’s Terry Lloyd, caught in an exchange of fire while travelling independently in a clearly marked press car; and the IFJ records 2003 as one of its most dangerous years on record, with 92 journalists known to have died worldwide in the course of their work, and many more injured or incapacitated.
Nor is it only in zones of open war that journalists face increasing danger. Across the former Soviet Union - in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus - journalists who seek to expose corruption in high places face terrifying risks; only a few weeks ago, in the latest of a series of killings of investigative journalists and broadcasters, the editor of Forbes business magazine in Russia, Paul Khlebnikov, was seized and shot, and his body dumped in a lay-by on the outskirts of Moscow, in what many saw as a revenge killing for his negative coverage of the affairs of leading Russian business figures.
From Colombia to the Philippines, the situation of journalists who seek to expose links between government, drug-related mafias and violent death squads is equally perilous. And last November in Belfast, a conference on ‘Journalism Under Threat’ heard the shocking news that Northern Ireland’s tentative - and, for some, destabilising - transition towards peace has brought no respite for those reporting on the conflict; on the contrary, there are now at least 16 Northern Irish journalists known to be living under explicit threats from various paramilitary groups, a higher number than at any time during the height of the conflict.
And although these facts are chilling and depressing, I suppose that to many people they will hardly seem surprising. In the world of 21st-century conflict, it often seems that the battle to control the news agenda, and to shape the images the world sees on its screens, is even more important than the real-life conflict on the ground; and in that battle - the new virtual war, if you like, between Fox News and al-Jazeera - journalists are front-line troops, providing the information, words and images that can be shaped into a major opinion-forming narrative. In the turmoil of post-war Iraq, this is obviously true, but it’s also increasingly the case across the planet, as journalists and their editors become leading players in everything from major disputes between environmental activists and economic developers, to decisions about which of the world’s many humanitarian crises demand international action.
Comment is free, but facts are sacred, the great CP Scott of the Guardian once said. But in an age when "facts" are increasingly seen as weapons, to be ruthlessly selected and spun in order to support an already existing point of view that distinction is becoming desperately hard to maintain.
What’s more, the hyper-competitive climate of the western media is not conducive to the long-term fostering of an ethic of civic journalism, characterised by high standards of accuracy and integrity.
"There can be no press freedom if journalists exist in conditions of fear, poverty and corruption," says one of the IFJ’s own favourite slogans; and even if most British journalists manage to keep poverty and corruption at bay, there’s no denying the fear - of failure, of unemployment, of never making it in one of the world’s most intensely competitive professions, or of arbitrary power in all its forms - that keeps journalists away from some of the world’s most difficult and sensitive stories, that compels some of them, often against their own consciences, to keep churning out hate-filled headlines on subjects such as asylum and migration, and that, on occasions, drives ambitious young writers and photographers, often working freelance without protection or training, to take the kinds of risks that can lead to tragedy.
And the official answer to all this, at least on the side of the journalists’ organisations, is for political, military and paramilitary powers the world over to take a step back, and to start treating all journalists covering situations of controversy and conflict as if they are what they should be: impartial reporters of the facts, and neutral purveyors to their waiting audiences back home of truths unsullied by ideology or spin.
To that end, the IFJ is campaigning for the deliberate targeting of journalists and media staff to be made a war crime in its own right, for any failure to protect journalists to be punishable under international law, and for a new international framework for the impartial investigation of the killing of journalists and media staff.
But clearly though I understand the case for these reforms, I have a feeling that the campaign is unlikely to succeed, so long as journalists remain one of the unpopular professional groups on earth, often perceived as exercising their huge influence on public opinion and debate without integrity, responsibility, or even basic decency.
It goes without saying that journalists should be free to report on conflict without fear or favour, and with as much independence as they can achieve.
But in order to earn the kind of automatic protection from all sides which they need to do that job - and which James Brandon seems, remarkably, to have received from his Shia captors in Basra yesterday - they also have to demonstrate, and to be allowed to demonstrate, levels of honesty, objectivity and courage in their work that mark them out as servants of the public interest and of the truth, as well as of the particular media organisations for which they work.
As we all know, free and accurate information is the lifeblood of democracy, the force without which it becomes a manipulative mockery of itself.
But if we journalists want to defend our profession from the growing external attacks which it suffers, then we will also need to defend it from those attacks to its integrity which come from within, from our own attitudes, our own working and management practices, and our own desperation to field the sensational headline at almost any cost.
Otherwise, in our fight for the right to report freely on a new century of wars, we may look around and find ourselves friendless; shorn of the allies on whom we might once have depended, but whose respect and support we have often forfeited, to the great long-term cost not only of ourselves, but of the whole society we are supposed to serve.
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