journalist threat

Journalists under threat and why we should care

My father was uncharacteristically jovial when I told him I had got a job as a journalist. “Have you heard the one about the journalist who married a prostitute,” he said, “… and dragged her down to his own level!”

Or, as the poet Humbert Wolfe famously put it:

“You cannot hope to bribe or twist
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

journalists under threat

Press passes collected by the author Oliver Wates in the early years of his career as an international journalist.

My father knew perfectly well that I was not proposing to don a shabby raincoat and lurk outside nightclubs to catch celebrities leaving with someone they were not married to. I was joining Reuters, the international news agency which has the job, indeed the mission, of informing the world accurately and impartially what is going on in other parts of it.

British ambivalence

Here in Britain, we’ve always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the ladies and gentlemen of the press. On the one hand we value them as sturdy champions of our democracy and liberties, on the other we despise them as grubby hacks; clearly to blame for whichever recent public vote went against our preferences  — and guilty of playing fast and loose with the truth.

In the aftermath of the chilling slaughter of five journalists in the small US town of Annapolis last week, it was the former that came to the fore across the Atlantic. Journalists, politicians and the public came together to express their admiration for the survivors, (who heroically put together the next edition that same day) and their determination to protect the freedom of the press.

journalist threat

Here’s a typical comment from a Tennessee newspaper:

“We can promise you that we will not be intimidated or deterred. We will continue fighting for your right to know, holding public officials accountable for their words and actions, and maintaining the free press’ rightful place in this democratic republic.” – Johnson City Press.

Journalists under threat across the world

But things are more complicated in many other parts of the world. The word “journalist” disguises two separate, but often intertwined, functions; the first is the purveyor of information as objective and balanced as humanly possible, in the style of Reuters, the BBC, and other news agencies and broadcasters.

The second is as the activist seeking to make the world a better place, as the journalist sees it, by using the media to campaign to change certain policies or attitudes. And this is where we get into politics and where journalism can become a dangerous calling.

The Annapolis shooting is unusual in that it was a disgruntled former subject of the paper’s reporting who, allegedly, fired the shots. Far more common is the assassination of journalists to prevent them investigating things or to intimidate others from tackling certain matters.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a US non-profit organisation, 1,800 journalists that we know of have been murdered worldwide over the past quarter-century. Prominent cases like Anna Politkovskaya in Russia (2006), Georgiy Gongadze in Ukraine (2000) and Ján Kuciak in Slovakia (February 2018) got widespread coverage in the international media.

Equally shocking was the 2015 murder of 12 journalists and other media workers at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, this time for extreme ideological reasons.

Journalists regularly murdered

But the vast majority of the murders of journalists get far less publicity and take place in countries like Iraq and Syria when civil war is raging. Even these risk being overshadowed by violence-riven Afghanistan, Mexico and Somalia and even supposedly peaceful countries like Philippines, Pakistan and India

When improving the lot of the people means tackling corruption and political skullduggery, inevitably there will be those with a lot to lose and often the ruthlessness to murder journalists. And for every journalist actually murdered, there will be dozens who put their safety and their families first and steer clear of dangerous territory, and others rotting away their lives in prison cells for offending the powerful.

The Paris-based NGO Reporters without Borders sees the profession increasingly under threat; as authoritarianism advances apparently inexorably across the globe, the traditional respect for independent journalism as one of the pillars of a democracy is similarly under the cosh.

For let us be clear. The primary political role of journalists in society is to hold the powerful to account. If they do not have the freedom to do that, governance suffers and our democracy is diminished.

Image of Capita Gazette front page from twitter.

Belgian PM strikes the right chord with live interview from Charlie Hebdo demonstration

Belgian PM strikes the right chord with live interview from Charlie Hebdo demonstration

In the digital age, how physically accessible should senior politicians make themselves to a public that is more turned off and cynical  than ever about the way politics functions?

Depending on your viewpoint, social media has or hasn’t aided the democratisation of politics. But what is clear is that in many cases it has not actually brought government ministers closer to their electorate or humanised them. It’s just  given them another platform from which to tweet pictures of highly engineered ‘meet the public’ photo opportunities, while simultaneously making them more attackable online.

Belgian PM Charles Michel doing a live interview

Belgian PM Charles Michel doing a live interview among the crowd outside the European Parliament

So that’s why I was surprised and impressed to see the new Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel doing a live TV interview in the crowd that had turned up  in the square outside the European Parliament  to show support in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.  His appearance had echoes of last year when Belgian ministers were also seen on the streets following the  fatal shootings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

It was a simple but well-judged gesture and  (judging by the reaction on Twitter) one that clearly chimed much better with the public mood than a controlled statement delivered from in/outside the PM’s offices might have been.

As a Brit living abroad and already bored by the 4 month electoral campaign that has just kicked off in the UK I wonder whether there are media lessons that the political leaders there could learn from this.

Of course,  Brussels is a much smaller city than London, so nipping down the road to do a spontaneous interview isn’t quite as straight forward for David Cameron as it would be for Charles Michel. And, leaving aside the not exactly minor issue of security, there are also risks to your credibility in making yourself too accessible and not statesmanlike enough (not to mention the possibility of it going wrong and being pelted with eggs by disgruntled members of the public).

But so rarely do we get to see our politicians against a backdrop of ordinary people (where the latter aren’t being manipulated or used as photo props) that when we do get the opportunity, it’s a breath of much needed fresh air.  But it’s a shame that it takes a tragedy to make it happen.