Perhaps the simplest answer to the question, “What is Journalism For,” is a simple: To be a voice for the voiceless while speaking truth to power; offering an objective and accurate report of events unfolding and unfolded. Journalism, however, is a movement almost in its changing definitions; and what it means – and how it’s used – is ultimately subjective.As a child of the Eighties, I have quite a different relationship to ‘The News’ than those raised by the internet. Like many kids back then, I watched Newsround on Children’s BBC, and, while we didn’t have newspapers in the home, I remember the talking heads of the evening news and Kate Adie reporting from Tiananmen Square and Yugoslavia and the Persian Gulf.
That really is how I saw journalists, either sheltering from artillery or shoving microphones in the faces of people who really didn’t want to have microphones shoved in their faces. It wasn’t until my teens that I fell in love with George Orwell and Hunter S. Thompson – both writers introducing me to the idea of the reporter inserting themselves into the story to get at the bones of it.
Though mostly famous for his political allegory, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris in London (1933) brought us into worlds few would have witnessed; wandering and working with the ordinary folk; offering insights through his interactions. That book and Thompson’s Hells Angels (1966) show us how empathy, while possible, has nothing on breaking bread and sharing the struggle with the protagonists of your tale.
Orwell wrote that he was, “trying to describe the people in our quarter [the Paris Slums], not for the mere curiosity, but because they are all part of the story.”
Hunter S. Thompson, a Doctor of Journalism and famous for his ‘Gonzo’ habit of self-inserts, once spent time with the Hells Angels. It’s a view into a world few would have the nerve to attempt. As Thompson himself remembers of the events leading up to a beating at the hands of the bikers: “Then I saw an Angel beating his wife along the shoreline. Or was it his dog? Did it really matter? Whatever it was, I protested, and it was exactly the excuse they needed…”.
We can consume these stories as snapshots into real lives, as cautionary tales, or as pure entertainment. The same is not true of the case of Veronica Guerin, who inadvertently became part of the story to a horrific degree.
Guerin was an Irish journalist whose dogged pursuit of drug dealers destroying her community led to her assassination – a murder that ultimately brought down her killers. Perhaps she shouldn’t have expected such an escalation from local criminals; or, it seems more likely, that she felt the risk was worth it, having already been threatened and assaulted.
Here we get into the realm of the war reporter. A case in point – and another stubborn, brave, fearless reporter chasing the story against all sense of self-preservation – is Marie Colvin; the woman who lost her eye in a grenade attack while reporting from the Sri Lankan civil war. In a 2010 speech where she honoured 49 journalists and their support staff killed in the line of duty, Colvin spoke of war reporting; that it means, “Going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda.”
Less than two years later, Colvin was dead. Killed in Homs, Syria, in targeted shelling by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. When we speak truth to power, power speaks back.
“Can’t we just drone this guy?” was a question allegedly asked not by a dictator but by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was speaking of Julian Assange, who, as you’ll remember, released though Wikileaks in 2009 the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs leaked by US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
Neither he nor Manning were killed but, broadly put, both have seen incarceration and torture. Yet, rather than such fates dissuade whistle-blowers and truth seekers, instead they are seemingly emboldened. In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked evidence of US government (and GCHQ) surveillance of private citizens to Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. The Guardian being one of the few papers (together with partner media organisations in the leaks) to stand by Assange, urge his prosecution be dropped by the US, and state that, “Publishing is not a crime.”
In summing up, I would offer that these are all, clearly, good examples of journalism doing what it says on the tin. It is unfortunate that it is the death-knock phone hackers and boot-lickers burying tales of real villains beneath bigoted smear jobs who have put journalists so far down the list of trusted professions.
We can marvel – and should – at the courage of war reporters and whistle-blowers. So too any honest reporter willing to stick their neck out to keep that whistle echoing long after it’s been blown. There is an argument to be made for journalists asking themselves, “If I’m not being called a traitor and a spy, am I even doing my job?” Because when the acts committed in our name would make the devil himself blush, collateral murder is indeed in the public interest – and silence is complicity.
What is journalism for if not truth, insight, and understanding? Humbly, naively, idealistically, I would suggest that, while recognising that it is not an altogether accurate statement of reality.
Colvin put it better: “Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.”
Everything else is public relations.