Thursday, November 26, 2009



Wrapping sandwiches or fish and chips in that morning’s newspaper indicates the lack of importance many people give to the day’s news. True, “the best tings in life are free”, goes the maxim. But while news, be it in a newspaper, on radio or on the television, may be free or very cheap to the people who read, see or hear it, it is actually very expensive both in money terms and in the exertions and sometimes the lives of the journalists, photographers and other media people whose task it is to discover and report the news.

This week 12 journalists were massacred in the Philippines. Why? They were covering the wife of a politician going to table his candidature for a forthcoming election, and the politician’s opponents did not like that. According to INSI (International News Safety Institute) 63 journalists and media staff have been killed at work this year, and well over 1000 in the last ten years. The record number of journalist and media staff deaths was in 2007, with 145 killed.

Most of these were deliberately murdered, either to stop them publishing information or as punishment for something they had written (in the press) or said (on radio or TV).

The media is the fourth estate of a civilised society. Like the other three – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – it has to be totally independent of the others if it is to do its job. And it has to be entirely honest, publishing the truth, irrespective of whether that hurts those responsible for shady dealings, fraud or any other crime.

Its job is vital. It is to inform everyone – from the President and Prime Minister to the man in the street – of what is happening, what is going to happen, and what has just happened.

This information is vital to everyone, as everyone bases his or her actions on what is happening and what he/she thinks is going to happen. This is as true of the Prime Minister and the Government as it is of business, trade and everyone’s daily life.

“Knowledge is power”. And knowledge consists of two elements: the wisdom and information one has learned through education and the experience of life, and the information one has of what is happening in one’s business circle, in the country and in the world. This information comes in many forms, from one’s friends and contacts, from an information network, if one is a big business, a political party or a government, but principally from the media.

Every politician starts the day by glancing over the newspapers and listening to the morning news on the radio, or if he is an important politician or businessman, underlings will prepare for him a summary of that morning’s news. He has to know what is happening and what is likely to happen in order that he can take the right decisions, be it about governing the country, about his business or, for the man in the street, about how to live his daily life.

When there is a big earthquake miles away under the ocean and a tsunami is heading towards one’s country, those who listen to the news can get away, while those who do not are going to be drowned and swept away.

Similarly in other fields of life if the decision makers know what is going to happen, they can take correct decisions. If they do not know, they make mistakes. They buy at the top of the market or fail to prepare to defend the country from some imminent danger.

Being the fourth estate places a big responsibility on the shoulders of the media and its journalists. They have to maintain high standards to be credible, reporting news truly and honestly. Its journalists must write or speak clearly and well. They must not practise self-censorship for fear of what the authorities or others might do if they publish something.

“Publish and be damned” is the motto of all self-respecting newspapers, news magazines and radio and TV programmes.

This is not special pleading by a journalist or by the media. The importance of free and independent publications and radio and TV programmes was stressed by Britain’s Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, last week.

Speaking to the Society of Editors in Stanstead, England, Lord Judge argued that an independent judiciary and an independent press were “twin cornerstones and bulwarks of a free society”. Newspapers should not be beholden to public authorities.

“I do not want the press to become the broadsheet of those institutions,” continued the Lord Chief Justice. “I do not want proceedings of the local council to be reported by an employee of the local council and the proceedings of court to be reported by a member of the judicial communications office. Spin is neither a cornerstone nor a bulwark of a free society.”

Lord Judge added that the prospect of papers relying on handouts from council press officers “should send a shiver down all our spines”.

He also pointed out the importance of the media reporting honestly and pointing out mistakes. And he opposed state funding of the news. “I remember that he who pays the piper calls the tune.” If journalists were not free to walk into court, walk into council or walk into other places where important decisions were being taken, and if they were not free to write up what they had seen and heard, “the public interest is damaged”.

Knowledge is power. For that knowledge we depend on the media, on the newspapers, radio, television and electronic news, and on that news being true and correct.

Some foolish people try to influence the media by lying to them or by forcing them to write and report untrue things. Some politicians and some businessmen have information officers who spread disinformation or propaganda. In some cases they may even succeed in making the media report things that are not true. But the media – whose editors and reporters are not fools – will soon find out. After that, they will not believe a word from those politicians or businessmen.

(This is not an attack on information officers, many of whom are honest and do their job well. They are a boon to society, as they help the media to collect and then report the news. We only criticise those who try to distort or manipulate the news.)

Some governments vote themselves special powers so they can control and censor the press. In countries like Russia, China and Zimbabwe, they arrest, imprison, torture and sometimes kill journalists for saying or writing the truth. In other countries it is organised criminals who harass journalists and sometimes kill them to prevent their crimes and wrongdoing becoming public knowledge.

But good and honest journalists do not let themselves be frightened or bribed to write lies. Some of them suffer fines and imprisonment because they publish the truth, be it about official incompetence, corruption or other crimes.

It is in the public interest that there is a strong and independent media in all countries. It is also in the interest of all levels of government. Good reporting and honest media often throw the light on errors and dishonesty, enabling wise managers, wise politicians and good government to correct and improve things that have not worked out as well as their originators had expected.

Let us pray that there will always be brave and honest journalists who will see what is happening and have the courage to report it.

John Szemerey FCIJ

Chairman: International Division, Chartered Institute of Journalists, London