Friday, 27 October 2017

Reporters: who needs 'em?

Last Monday, the Russian radio broadcaster Tatyana Felgenhauer was stabbed in the neck by an attacker who broke into the offices of the independent radio station Echo of Moscow. (Her father Pavel is a respected military analyst whom I often used to interview on The World Tonight.)

Exactly seven days earlier, the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed when a bomb that had been planted in her car exploded.

In Mexico, eleven journalists have been murdered so far this year -- more than a hundred have been killed since 2000.

In Iran, the authorities have opened a criminal investigation into 150 staff, former staff and contributors to the BBC's Persian service for 'conspiracy against national security'. The BBC's director-general, Tony Hall, called the action 'an unprecedented collective punishment of journalists'.

In China, several Western news organisations,  including the BBC, the Financial Times, the Economist, the New York Times and the Guardian, were banned from the unveiling of the Communist party's new ruling council.

In Turkey, there are currently thought to be more than a hundred journalists behind bars; 48 more went on trial this week. Earlier this month, a Wall Street Journal reporter, Ayla Albayrak, was sentenced in her absence to two years in prison for spreading 'terrorist propaganda' in her coverage of the Kurdish insurgency.

This is the price journalists pay for insisting on their right to report without fear or favour, wherever there is criminality, corruption and injustice. And they need your support, because it is not only in faraway places with few established democratic traditions that they are under threat.

Do you remember who said this? 'It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.' (Thank you, Donald Trump.)

Or this? 'It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic.' (Take a bow, Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom.)

Wherever there are despots and dictators, so too there are muzzled media and jailed journalists. Even in the most well-established liberal democracies, the first instinct of any politician in trouble is to turn against the messengers.

In Montana last May, a Republican party congressional candidate, Greg Gianforte, assaulted a Guardian reporter. (A day later, notwithstanding the assault, he won a convincing election victory.) A few days ago, a party official in the same state said she would have shot the reporter if he had approached her.   

No one, not even me, would argue that the Western media are invariably saints. But I wish more media critics would give credit where credit is due. In my memoir, Is Anything Happening?, I list some of the world's iniquities that never would have been exposed without the courage and diligence of journalists: the corruption at the heart of international football, the sexual abuse of young English footballers by their coaches, drug-taking in sport, MPs’ expenses-fiddling, police corruption, corporate tax-dodging, offshore banking malpractice. Not to mention the crimes and alleged crimes of men like Jimmy Savile and Harvey Weinstein.

As Tom Stoppard wrote in his play Night and Day: 'No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.'

With liberal democracies under increasing attack, it is more important than ever to be clear where the dangers really come from. Is it from authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, who seek to undermine trust in legitimate reporting by peddling fake news and propaganda, or from mainstream media organisations like the BBC, which, for all their short-comings, strive mightily to get most things right most of the time?

According to one recent survey, the proportion of British voters who say they trust  British news outlets has now fallen to a dismal 24%. Another survey found that just 41% of British people think the news media do a good job in helping them distinguish fact from fiction.

Those figures worry me, and I think they should worry you, too. No democracy can survive without a healthy -- and trusted -- press. Just last weekend, a jubilant Donald Trump tweeted: 'It is finally sinking through. 46% of people believe major national news orgs fabricate stories about me. Fake news, even worse. Lost cred.'

No prizes for guessing why he was so gleeful. After all, if nearly half the country don't believe what the press say about him, it won't matter in the slightest how many scandals or how much corruption reporters manage to unearth. 

I've just finished writing a play (are there any producers out there who might be interested in staging it?), at the end of which the central character, a journalist -- more anti-hero than hero, to be honest -- desperately tries to defend the traditional notion of a free press.

'Even when we print utter garbage,' he says, 'a free press is something we cannot afford to do without. Even when we get things wrong, we must have the freedom to be wrong. Even when we behave badly, we must have the freedom to behave badly. Do we want a government that has the power to tell us what we can and can’t print? What we can and can’t say? There’s a name for that kind of government: it’s tyranny.'

I think I agree with that. After all, I wrote it.


juliet solomon said...

We are particularly in need of reporters just now, but who will print the truth?

Unknown said...

I may be misinterpreting you, but I was left with the impression that you think this loss of faith in mainstream news outlets is some kind of collective character flaw in the general population.

In the UK, most of the press is owned by a handful of corporate moguls who pursue their agendas without restraint or embarrassment. They face no accountability, other than to their shareholders.

The BBC’s news agenda is influenced by these forces. How else are we to understand it’s repeated failure to challenge the astounding falsehoods put forward by e.g. Nigel Lawson, or the Honorable Member for Uxbridge? The BBC is accountable to the government, which cheerfully makes existential threats whenever it feels that the BBC is out of control.

I have no idea what the solution is. Like you, I believe in a free press, but unlike you, I don’t believe that’s what we have in the UK.

Robin Lustig said...

John: I agree that what we have is far from perfect. But I don't believe perfection is on offer -- and I fear that constant belittling of what we have serves only to weaken those who are trying to uphold high standards. I certainly did not mean to imply a 'collective character flaw' in the general population -- but I do want people to think carefully about the implications of reducing trust in mainstream news outlets. You have only to look across the Atlantic to see what I mean ...

Unknown said...

Ok, thanks for clarification.

Anonymous said...

But surely it's not the readers who reduce the trust in mainstream news outlets but that eventually, and sometimes it takes a long wait, truth will out. Then we learn that we were lied to - sometimes innocently but sometimes not. Over time we realise that we are not always told the truth; it might be a journalist or two, or it might be down to the owner's influence. But we have discovered over time that we are fools if we believe everything we're told. And that's really not our fault Robin.