The press must fight on

Published: Sunday | December 9, 2012 Comments 0
A campaigner (left) depicting News Corporation's chairman Rupert Murdoch mock-burns the Leveson report while another demonstrator depicting British Prime Minister David Cameron sits tied to a chair during a protest calling on MPs to back reform legislation to prevent near media monopoly. -AP
A campaigner (left) depicting News Corporation's chairman Rupert Murdoch mock-burns the Leveson report while another demonstrator depicting British Prime Minister David Cameron sits tied to a chair during a protest calling on MPs to back reform legislation to prevent near media monopoly. -AP

The following is the presentation by immediate past general secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) (UK and Ireland) to the Press Association of Jamaica and National Integrity Action at Knutsford Court Hotel during National Journalism Week 2012.

Charles Atangana, a leading Cameroonian journalist, was arrested, stripped naked, beaten up and detained for 40 days. His crime? Investigating corruption at a government-backed oil company. He was locked in a flooded cell and tortured to try to force him to reveal his sources. He refused.

Suffering from malnutrition, chronic diarrhoea and food poisoning, Charles managed to persuade his captors to take him to hospital. Hidden in his underwear was the remains of his money. Bribing his captors he managed to escape.

Charles fled to the UK - somewhere he believed was a sanctuary for freedom of speech. The UK government - apparently more concerned about British business interests with Cameroon, threatened to deport him. Our union and the international community of journalists stepped in. Thanks to months of active campaigning and legal battles, we have secured the right for Charles to live permanently in the UK

But, more important, Charles continues to be a journalist, continues to expose fraud and corruption, continues to shine a light into the corners of Cameroon that President Biya and his supporters would rather no one looked.

spur to change.

Journalism itself doesn't change the world, but media in the public service can help undercut the lies, distortions, spin, censorship and secrecy of anti-democratic governments, and such information can act as a spur to change. Independent journalism is a vital tool in the fight against corruption. But journalism's very ability to uphold its historic mission of holding power to account is under threat. Across the world, too many employers are turning their back on journalism. Corporate strategies become more about maximising short-term profits through cutting costs or selling news to the highest bidder than making long-term investments in quality.

The poverty and precarious employment of journalists around the world - low pay, the hire-and-fire culture - means journalism is too open to corruption, too reliant on payola or other forms of unethical assistance, and its independence is challenged and compromised.

The founders of the free press never thought that freedom of the press would only belong to those who could afford a press - or afford to buy the press. They would have been horrified at the idea that if a handful of rich people determine there is not sufficient commercial value in news, that communities should be deprived of independent, quality journalism.

Such an environment provokes self-censorship and fear and intimidation in media - something the Leveson inquiry in the UK recognised. In response to allegations from journalists that they operated under conditions of fear and bullying at Rupert Murdoch's News International, Mr Murdoch said they could always leave. It took the judge to point out that in order to pay for their home and food, maybe they needed a job.

As the IFJ (International Federation of Journalist) makes clear - from Iraq to Colombia, from Syria to the Philippines, from the UK to Jamaica - there can be no press freedom if journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty or fear. The material conditions of contemporary journalism - particularly unprotected commercial practice - do not offer the space to practise independent journalism. On the contrary, job insecurity and commercial priorities place increasing limitations on journalists' ability to do what society wants us to - to question, analyse, scrutinise.

New media platforms offer us huge opportunities to enhance our democracy through investment in news gathering and enhancing pluralism. Protection of the Internet and journalism from commercial suffocation could create a vastly expanded and critically engaged public space operating in the public interest.

A recent survey in Denmark showed that compared to a decade earlier, there was an increase of 134 per cent in the number of news items in national media. In the same period, the number of journalists had increased by just eight per cent. Twenty-four-hour news channels and new media platforms demand ever more copy, more updates, faster responses, and yet with less journalists all too readily accepting they have to cut corners. And here we have the dilemma: more platforms, more stories fewer journalists, less time - the space to think, the room for analysis, the ability to dig, source and check is increasingly compromised.

Increasing concentration of media ownership, underfunding of public-service broadcasters, the poverty and precarious employment of journalists around the world through casualisation and the undermining of collective agreements means journalism is too often open to corruption and its independence is increasingly challenged.

The real threat to quality comes not from technology, not from new media, but from those who treat information and news as nothing more than a commodity, from the domination of corporate interests, not news values. In a globalised and increasingly insecure world, quality media become even more important.

But journalists need help and support to stand up to the pressures from those who want them to be the servants of Big Business or of political masters. Journalists need to reinforce the message that journalism matters; that without the right equipment, resources and staffing, the historic mission of journalism is increasingly compromised. That's why building global professional solidarity, helping support those who stand up for journalism here or internationally, is so important.

And most worryingly in this corporate-controlled media world, the truth becomes less important. Nothing matters as long as it brings in the advertising revenues and sells papers/programmes to advertisers. And so we have the scenario of a national daily newspaper which makes wild claims that 1.6 million Roma will arrive in the UK as border controls in Europe are eased - and it repeats such apocalyptic visions of a UK swamped by foreigners day after day, knowing them to be untrue - but it does so because it estimates that such lurid headlines add 20,000 to daily sales.

Faced with that kind of competitive pressure and casualisation and job insecurity, is it any wonder journalists feel under pressure to make the facts fit the story rather than the other way round. And is it any wonder in this environment that public trust in journalismis declining?

It is a sad indictment of our industry in the UK that we have fallen below real-estate agents in the trust stakes. Such distrust has an impact beyond journalism - it undermines democracy and promotes disengagement from the democratic process. And when the people are disengaged from the political process, corruption can flourish, special and vested interests come to the fore.

That's why the Leveson inquiry in the UK has been so important - because it lays bare the unethical practices of too much of our media. There are many views about Lord Leveson's recommendations, but within the 2,000 pages of his report, there was a major victory for the NUJ - Leveson's backing for a conscience clause. This means that when journalists are put in a position where they are being asked to do something that goes against their code of conduct, they can speak out and refuse an assignment, knowing that they have a contractual protection against being dismissed.

It's a key victory after years of campaigning, and, if implemented, will be a major step forward for ethical journalism.

We want a co-regulatory body made up of the broader public with, critically, the involvement of working journalists through the NUJ. With the involvement of the NUJ, this new body should seize the chance to rebuild public trust in the press, promoting high standards in journalism and offering genuine accountability to readers.

It would hear individual complaints against its members and will have the power to investigate "serious or systemic breaches" and impose appropriate sanctions. It will provide a fair, quick and inexpensive arbitration service to deal with any civil claims. It would have powers to fine and hold the carrot of protecting members who sign up from the costs of litigation.

But there are parts of the Leveson report that the NUJ will strongly resist. This includes changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the Data Protection Act - changes that would restrict the ability of journalists to properly carry out their work, to carry out investigative work and to truly protect their sources. Journalism needs more of this work, not less, and the NUJ will robustly challenge any attempts to introduce these changes.

Journalism faces many challenges. The NUJ's response has been our Stand up for Journalism campaign - a campaign:

Exposing the threats to media and the democratic process by commercialisation and cost-cutting.

Building alliances with readers, viewers, listeners and civil society we serve to promote quality, independence and transparency.

Demanding professional codes of practices/standards, laws and regulations are enforced.

Campaigning for a stronger commitment to plurality and diversity and fora media policy which serves citizens, listeners, viewers and readers.

Our campaign, this year, staged a unionwide day of action - with dozens of events in towns and cities across the UK and Ireland. We have lobbied Parliament and the regulator. In local areas, we have high-profile campaigns out on the streets, petitions, dedicated websites, targeted material, bringing staff and freelancers together.

The one thing we have not done is remain silent, because we know that just as media workers are at the sharp end of these changes, so we must be at the heart of the solution. No one else will do it for us. We protect quality by building strong unions. And where we do we can demonstrate, it works.

I have painted a sometimes bleak picture of the state of parts of our industry. There are those who, in in face of corporate power and political apathy, are pessimistic, those who believe they are powerless. Not me. Not us. We demonstrate every day that as united, campaigning, active and organised, staff and freelancers, we make a difference.

You don't need to believe me - ask Charles Atangana.

Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.


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