BALI -- It may surprise you to learn – there again, it may not – that from time to time we journalists like to get together and think for a day or two about what we do and how we do it. And that’s what I’ve been doing this week, so I hope you’ll forgive a rare bout of navel-gazing.
It’s more than just narcissism, of course. Because for better or for worse, we journalists can influence how you think of the world we live in. The stories we choose to report, the words we use to report them, the pictures we choose to broadcast – all play their part in shaping your perceptions of what’s going on.
The conference I’ve been at had as its theme “Ethical journalism in extreme conditions” – and it was attended by more than 130 of us from 60 countries, all the way from Afghanistan to Venezuela. And what I found most interesting was listening to journalists from countries which are or have been mired in conflict – Sri Lanka, Kenya, Israel/Palestine, and in Aceh, here in Indonesia – about how they cope with living and working in “extreme conditions”.
What does a journalist do when his own government (Sri Lankan in this case) denounces him for having “raped the truth” and published “reportage most foul” about military casualties in a recent battle? How does he react when he is accused of playing a “feverish role in the terrorist propaganda machine” and when armed men have burst into his home?
What do Kenyan journalists do when their country is engulfed in post-election violence and they know that what they publish could exacerbate the tensions? The choice, said one of them, was information, or inflammation: so were they right not to publish the tribal/ethnic identities of the victims and perpetrators of the violence? Did they short-change their readers? Maybe, but was it for a greater good?
And how did Indonesian journalists react during delicate and secret peace talks designed to end a bloody secessionist war in the province of Aceh? When they got hold of some secret documents, but the government said the talks would be derailed if the material was published, what should they have done? Publish and be damned? Or accept the government’s judgement that something greater than an exclusive story was at stake?
None of these is an easy question to answer – but for these journalists, they were real, immediate dilemmas that they had to decide under great pressure and at a time of great tension. No journalist expects sympathy – after all, we all choose to do what we do with our eyes open – but I thought you might be interested in some of the issues that go beyond our more parochial British concerns.
The conference was co-sponsored by the Norwegian and Indonesian governments, and in his introductory address, the deputy Norwegian culture minister Wegard Harsvik quoted Albert Camus: “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance.”
He went on to say: “Good journalism can help us understand. It can help us understand conflicts, both near and far. And good journalism can help us understand precisely which conflicts really are far away and which are closer than they seem. It can help us understand which conflicts we are part of ourselves and which we are not – because sometimes we are not even aware that we are part of a wider conflict. But local actions can have global effects, as illustrated by the [Danish] cartoons controversy, climate change, and increasing food prices.”
Which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad summary of the principles underlying what we try to do on The World Tonight.