Journalists are largely unloved by the public. Survey after survey puts my chosen profession towards the bottom of the likeability scale, only estate agents are held in more distaste, and even that might be a close run thing now.
In TV and the movies, the journalist is rarely the hero, and when he is (and it’s more often a he) he is flawed and broken, ruined by the job and the demands it makes.
The last few weeks have not been good for journalists. And in the fevered revulsion of the underhand, illegal and immoral tactics used by some British newspaper journalists to get their stories it is easy to lose perspective.
In a democracy, journalism should play an important role. It should help inform the public so they can make considered decisions about those who seek to lead. It should hold to account those in power. It may be surprising to quote Rupert Murdoch but as he told the British parliament’s committee meeting he was summoned to attend on Tuesday: “The country benefits from a competitive press and a transparent society. That is greatly inconvenient for some people, but it makes this country stronger.”
There are thousands of journalists in Britain and millions worldwide who work hard to do their job who do what journalists are meant to do. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 11 of my colleagues have died this year, killed for doing their jobs. Journalists like Saleem Shahzad. It’s alleged he was tortured and killed because of a series of articles about how Al-Qaeda had infiltrated the country’s navy. Or my Al Jazeera colleague Ali Hassan al-Jaber, caught in an ambush by pro-Gadaffi forces while working in Libya.
I have been a journalist for almost 30 years. I have never hacked a phone. I have never pretended to be someone I’m not to get a story (although I once claimed to be Irish rather than British to avoid a beating by an angry crowd in Macedonia).
Most of the people I work with would probably say the same. Our ethics are not in question. Instead we are being held to account for the illegal behaviour of those who didn’t know where to draw the line those that had no sense of shame in the pursuit of the next scoop to please their editor. It should not be forgotten that the stories they produced were enthusiastically read by millions of people each week. And it’s hard for anyone to believe that the News of the World is the only newspaper where this took place in Britain. Journalists talk and gossip and once someone explains how a scoop was landed, others will try it.
At times like this, journalists always trot out the professions successes: Watergate the Sunday Times investigation into the devastating side effects of the drug thalidomide the coverage of the famine in Ethiopia.
But many were also secured by subterfuge and a bending of the rules. Nelly Bly feigned insanity to write a damning expose of the treatment of those in mental hospitals in the US at the end of the 19th century, a stunning piece of work. Defence Minister Jonathan Aitken’s links to a Saudi businessman was uncovered by the Guardian newspaper in the UK sending a fax on House of Commons headed paper and claiming to be from the soon-to-be-disgraced MP. The scandal of MPs’ expenses, which arguably changed the face of British politics, came from a stolen data disc and a cheque from the newspaper the Daily Telegraph. And it should be pointed out that the worst excesses of phone hacking were not revealed in court or in parliament but were uncovered by journalists reporting on journalists.
Context, as always, is everything. And so those who break the law, who cheat, who lie, who deceive the public should fear a free and robust media.
In the way not every politician is corrupt, not every policeman is accepting bribes for information, then not every journalist is working on the edge of legality and morality. Each day I – and many like me – work to try to make people a little bit smarter about the world, a little bit better informed about what is happening and why it’s happening. It’s not Watergate, but it’s important.
The climate in the UK at the moment means there are many lining up, ready to put the press, the media in its place, ready to introduce tougher regulations. With the current climate of ‘superinjunctions’ – where a legal gagging order prevents the media from reporting the details of a story, but also blocks mention of the existence of the injunction itself, and ferocious libel laws – a free press runs the risk of being muzzled. That would be a disaster for democracy – and the only people to be happy would be the powerful and the corrupt.