Safety of Journalists 10th December 2014
I attended, last week, an international conference held to discuss the safety of journalists. That is another issue that might just not be at the top of everyone`s agenda but if it is true that a free democracy requires a free press then I think that it matters.
It is easy, sitting in the comfort of an armchair in a British home watching the news or reading the local newspaper, to forget that while in the main those that bring information to us are, in this United Kingdom, able to do so in reasonable safety there are many places in the world where that is not so. Our own foreign correspondents, working for the BBC, Sky News, ITN and the print media do, of course, place themselves in harm`s way on many occasions and most of us have probably marvelled at the courage of those reporters who go right out on the front line to expose and deliver something at least approximating the truth under what are often confused circumstances.
The death of a British-born journalist during a failed US hostage-rescue attempt in the Yemen has once again highlighted the risks taken by some of those going about what is, for them, a daily job. Behind the scenes there are many such, operating under politically oppressive or authoritarian regimes, that literally put their lives on the line with every article that they write and every inch of video that they shoot. In eastern Ukraine there are, at present, two journalists held by pro-Russian forces. In too many countries “conflict” goes far wider than “war”, the conventions of the civilised world do not apply, the word “PRESS” on a flak jacket is regarded as a target rather than as a protection and arrest, imprisonment and torture are commonplace.
Domestically, politicians and others in public life are quick to criticise the media and sometimes with good reason. Most of us in what is described as `public life` can and do cite instances of careless or deliberate misrepresentation that sometimes borders on the libellous and malicious. Recent examples of wholly unacceptable intrusions into privacy and the inquiries and the trials that have flowed from the use, by the tabloid press, of unlawful surveillance have dragged down the reputation of some publications to a level below that of those whose `crimes` they have sought, in the interests not of the public but of selling newspapers, to `expose`. Social media and broadcast television, likewise, are not immune from wrongdoing, falsification and criticism. Entrapment, even of the terminally vain and stupid, should have no place in a decent society.
That said, though, it is easy to rush to judgement and to throw a basically healthy baby out with the bathwater. Before we travel too far down the “Hacked-Off” road of over-regulation we need to consider, perhaps, those who, at home, would dearly love to shelter behind draconian regulation and those working abroad who, particularly, are not afforded the protections of the relatively civilised laws of the United Kingdom. In the interests of national and international security there have to be some limits. I personally regard the activities of Edward Snowden and those who have published his unlawfully obtained material, for example, as an act of treachery that is not in the national interest and should not be glorified with the description of “whistleblowing”. Nevertheless, given a choice between publication and the suppression of truth that is so commonplace in far too many countries there is, surely, no real contest.
Our conference reached few practical conclusions. Simple to wish the ends – a world in which all journalists are able to go about their business in peace and freedom and to transmit, openly, honestly and without or favour their findings – but very hard indeed to will the means by which this might be achieved. “Codes of Conduct” usually describe fine words backed up with very little of substance and many oppressive regimes pay little or no attention to their own public opinion never mind anyone else`s. We do, though, have a duty to try to shine a light into these dark corners and to make an effort to afford some protection to those who gather news. These are more than tomorrow`s chip-wrappings; for some it is life and death.