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Friday, 5 June 2015

In praise of journalists


I don't often get the chance to say this, so I'll seize the opportunity when it presents itself: I am proud to call myself a journalist.

Why this week of all weeks? Because if it hadn't been for journalists -- and one journalist in particular, of whom more later -- the vast, stinking edifice that is FIFA would still be intact, sitting undisturbed atop foundations built of bribes and kick-backs. And Sepp Blatter would still be its absolute ruler.

Perhaps you don't care about FIFA. Perhaps you've never watched a football match. But if you're a taxpayer in any of the countries that have ever bid to host the World Cup, then some of your hard-earned cash has ended up in the pockets of deeply corrupt officials. Allegedly.

If it hadn't been for journalists -- and one journalist in particular -- reporters on certain mass market newspapers would still be illegally accessing other people's voicemail messages.

Global corporations would still be happily paying negligible amounts of tax into the UK exchequer, and HSBC would still be merrily helping its richest clients to hide their cash from the taxman. The US intelligence services would still be gaily hoovering up phone calls, text messages and emails with little or no legal authority, and MPs would still be fiddling their expenses.

And -- here's the point -- if it hadn't been for dogged, skilled and above all brave journalists, we'd have known nothing about any of it.

Given that journalism so often gets a bad press (how does that work, I wonder?), we need occasionally to say what needs saying: Without journalists, the world would be in even worse shape than it is.

The stench of corruption has surrounded FIFA for decades. Many reporters over the years have tried to expose the truth, but one in particular has been reponsible for shining a spotlight into its darkest corners. His name is Andrew Jennings, described in the Washington Post this week as a "71-year-old curmudgeonly investigative reporter".

According to the Post, the FBI first approached Jennings six years ago to ask for his assistence with their inquiries -- and he handed over the pile of documents he'd acquired to help them on their way. He is not a man to mince words about the men he's had in his sights for so long: “I know that they are criminal scum, and I’ve known it for years … These scum have stolen the people’s sport. They’ve stolen it, the cynical thieving bastards. So, yes, it’s nice to see the fear on their faces.”

I knew Jennings slightly in the 1980s, when he was reporting from Thailand on murky goings-on close to the border with Burma. I was news editor at The Observer at the time, and I quickly developed a deep admiration for his doggedness and courage.

It is easy to under-estimate the importance of courage when it comes to revealing the truth about people who don't want the truth to be revealed. Brave reporters need brave editors to back them up; and brave editors need brave proprietors to withstand pressure from advertisers and shareholders.

Consider this passage from Hack Attack, the book by Nick Davies of The Guardian in which he describes his years-long investigation into phone-hacking. After his first revelations saw the light of day, both News International and Scotland Yard issued categorical denials.

"Like a malignant cell, a horrible thought silently formed itself -- I had screwed up. I'd got the story wrong -- a big story, that had gone round the world, that had had politicians and public figures standing up on their back legs shouting for action. And it was wrong, or maybe it was wrong, or I couldn't be sure, but if it was wrong -- on that kind of scale -- [Guardian editor Alan] Rusbridger and I really were in a deep pit of foul-smelling trouble."

(As we now know, of course, the story wasn't wrong. The News of the World was shut down, and several of its journalists were convicted and jailed. Several thousand people are now believed to have had their phone messages illegally hacked into.)

Last night, I was at an event at which the annual Charles Wheeler award for an outstanding contribution to broadcast journalism, sponsored by the British Journalism Review and the University of Westminster, was presented to Alex Crawford of Sky News. (Previous recipients include Jeremy Bowen, Lindsey Hilsum, Allan Little, Jon Snow and, ahem, me.)

Alex has courage by the bucket-load, having reported from places like Libya, Liberia, Tunisia and Mali in the most dangerous of circumstances. If it weren't for her work, and the work of many other fearless journalists, on air, in print and online, we would know far less about the world we live in.

We need people like Alex Crawford, Nick Davies and Andrew Jennings. We need to celebrate their work and recognise the contribution they make. Especially in the same week that a former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, who spent seven months in jail for his role in the phone hacking scandal, was found not guilty of perjury in a Scottish court because, as the judge so neatly put it: "Not every lie amounts to perjury."

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