Amidst the talk of journalism’s decline, bankruptcy and loss of purpose, I sense a fightback. Journalism is rediscovering the serious role it must play in an open society. On the really big issues — war, the facts of history, and the biggest economic crash in living memory — journalists, it turns out, are necessary. Essential, in fact.
And all this at the height of the midsummer “silly season”.
It is precisely the loss of public trust in elected politicians and the media, in Britain and other countries, which has thrown into relief the vital role of inquiring, fact-based journalism. I read the events of high summer as a time when the value of serious journalism won new recognition because recent events have shown the urgent need for it.
- In August, at a stormy public meeting in the Society of Friends meeting house in London organised by Action for UN Renewal and others, participants spoke with fury about deceptions used by the British governments to justify the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Special venom was reserved for the “metropolitan media” in London, which was accused of parotting official falsehoods about the evidence for Iraq’s possession of WMD. Robert Fox of The Evening Standard accused his own tribe of allowing Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, to dominate the “information space”.
Very true. Yet a maverick journalist working for the BBC, Andrew Gilligan, did puncture the government’s carefully constructed “Iraq story” in a live radio broadcast. He paid for it with his job, as did the BBC’s chairman and director-general. Was most of the BBC’s coverage of the occupation too unquestioning? Or that of UK newspapers? It didn’t seem like that. The new Chilcot inquiry into the war will again test the media’s ability to get at the facts of the judgements and mistakes of all sides.
* Then, on 1 September, it was the key facts about the outbreak of the Second World War that became the stuff of headlines, when the political leaders of Poland and Russia each used the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland at the start of the war to make rival points.
Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski tried, as he saw it, to set the muddied historical record straight. At the gathering of world leaders in Gdansk he described the Soviet Red Army’s occupation of eastern Poland later in September 1939 as a “knife in the back of Poland”. He used the accusing words that “we are here to remember who in that war was the aggressor and who was the victim, for without an honest memory neither Europe, nor Poland, nor the world will ever live in security.”
Vladimir Putin, now Russia’s prime minister, took what was seen as a rather moderate line, denouncing the Nazi-Soviet Pact which paved the way for the double invasion of Poland, and declaring that “huge numbers of mistakes were made by all sides.” It was a positive step that the Russian leader attended the ceremony in Gdansk. Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski praised his courage in doing so.
But from Russian officials, historians and media in Moscow has come a fresh campaign of falsification and misinformation about the circumstances at the outbreak of war, which seems to raise a grave danger that today’s Russians may accept a one-sided and partly false record of those hugely important events. The thrust of the campaign, on TV, in print and in briefings given to journalists, is that the Poles were Hitler’s “first ally”, or even secretly plotted some kind of combined invasion with Germany of Stalin’s Soviet Union, so they somehow brought their subsequent national tragedy upon themselves.
President Kaczynski faced some criticism at home for the stridency of his remarks. But in Russia, as the Council of Europe and the OSCE have documented in detail, journalists face growing pressures and even coercion if they challenge official orthodoxies. Killings of independent journalists and human rights defenders mean that Russia has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for champions of free speech.
Critics of the Russian authorities now say that the powerful state-dominated media in Russia are again being instrumentalised to spread biased and distorted accounts of the war and the Soviet subjugation of eastern Europe that followed. In the light of the selective treatment of the historical record it is no surprise to find that in a Levada opinion poll in July of this year, 61 percent of Russians did not even know that Soviet troops invaded eastern Poland in September 1939. Serious distortions of big historical events harm the chances of good relations between countries today, especially if cover-ups are enforced by state power.
There are present dangers too. After the killing in Chechnya in July of Natalia Estemirova, to stop her doing her vitally important work documenting human rights abuses there, her organisation Memorial said it was being forced to close its operation in Chechnya. Facts must be respected; and journalists as well as historians must defend them.
* The big story affecting most people now and over the past year is the financial crisis and economic downturn. It’s another theme that excites heady emotions.
The BBC’s Business Editor, Robert Peston, presented his own powerful testament on why inquiring journalism matters in a lecture on 29 August at the Edinburgh Television Festival entitled “What future for media and journalism?”.
His starting-point was that the traditional model of news provision is being wrecked and needs to be overhauled.
And in a riposte to James Murdoch’s pugnacious claim that the only reliable guarantor of independence in journalism is “profit”, Robert Peston set out his grounds for saying that society needs a choice of high-quality news providers, and that a raw commercial model could not meet that important need.
He acknowledged that parts of the media had acted as cheer leaders for the orgy of profits and debts run up by licentious money-men. The media had at best been “myopic while the authorities were blind”. But he identified the core issue raised by the whole saga as the ability — or inability — of the media to challenge orthodoxy — to ask the big and hard questions.
Robert Peston invoked Walter Bagehot, the 19th century British constitutionalist and lucid writer on economics, who defined democracy as government by discussion. “You can’t,” he concluded “have a good chinwag without the facts.”
No good discussion without the facts. It sounds like a sound basis for re-building and advancing the reputation of journalism in Britain, after the obvious lapses in the reporting of issues surrounding the Iraq invasion, as well as the fantastic deceptions woven by some of those bankers.
It is encouraging, after so much doom and gloom about the media, to hear journalists themselves, and others, insisting on the need for the media to challenge authority as their right and their duty.
That’s the difference between a society with open and plural media, and one where criticism or even simple questioning of those in high authority can easily bring negative and direct consequences.
The summer’s “silly season” is over and a new political season has begun. Despite their imperfections, the UK media go on day after day probing current issues — like the layers of truth behind the release of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, and plans to reform parliament and the financial system after a year of ripping scandals.
We badly need serious journalism. That means journalism that gets at the facts — especially when they are unwelcome to those who wield power and would like to airbrush them out.