Barnie Choudhury: Press freedom comes with responsibility and striking a balance
(Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images).
Radhakrishna N S
By Barnie Choudhury
Former BBC journalist
MY FIRST prominent memory of Radio 4’s Today programme was on December 9, 1980. As ever, my father was listening to it on the Bakelite set we had in our lounge.
I was getting ready for school, and I froze when I heard that John Lennon had been shot dead outside his American home the previous evening.
“It’s a drag, isn’t it?”, said Paul McCartney, and even then, I knew this icon would become the story for uttering what appeared to be callous words about his once pal. Fast forward 21 years, and I was making headlines on the same programme.
Today is a powerful, agenda-setting, must-listen show. Under Rod Liddle’s editorship, it broke scoop after scoop. Liddle insisted his reporters and producers took on Fleet Street and shone a light on stories which mattered. He was fearless. When I explained that the police wouldn’t comment on a story I was doing, one of his producers told me, “I don’t give a f*** about the police. We’re the Today programme.”
So, I was rather disappointed to read that prime minister Boris Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, wouldn’t be listening. Don’t get me wrong, his not tuning in is no great loss. What is more disturbing, if true, is the apparent comment from Number 10’s director of communications, Lee Cain.
He’s reported to have told advisers to stop ministers from appearing on Today.
What is also sinister are reports that over the weekend, at the G7 summit, the prime minister gave interviews to almost all UK broadcasters except Channel 4 to punish it. Apparently, one of its executives had the temerity to call Johnson a coward. What they don’t get is that both sides need one another. Politicians rely and thrive on publicity, good or bad. A journalist’s raison d’etre is reporting news. So, the question is: can we reach an accommodation?
I understand the need to control the message. But this is the first step towards putting a leash on press freedoms. If you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger. If you can’t control the message, then boycott them. If you don’t like what the journalist says, don’t give him or her access.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United boss, and someone whom I think was the best manager England never had (sorry Scotland), did that to the BBC after a Panorama investigation. There are some reports from India that the government has pulled advertising in newspapers and outlets which have criticised the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. And in dictatorships and some so-called democracies, journalists are accompanied everywhere, spied on and intimidated by government thugs.
It is worth pointing out why journalism and journalists are important. Our job is to hold fast to truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is for those in power. Our job is to make sure that we do not sleepwalk into an Orwellian 1984 Ministry of Truth world. Our job is to question forensically, fairly and fittingly those in power, no matter the risk to our lives.
It is not a game. Those who cry “fake news” when the evidence is beyond reasonable doubt endanger lives. Discredit journalists often enough, and you unleash attack dogs with fatal consequences. In 2018, 94 journalists and media workers died in targeted killings, bomb attacks and crossfire incidents, according to the International Federation of Journalists. That’s up 12 from the previous year.
I have been on both sides. I know how bosses become paranoid and adopt a siege mentality when they are under constant attack from the media. I know all too well that we, as journalists, stretch what is meant by “accuracy”. But both sides need to engage and be prepared to be tested.
As journalists, we must have the courage to spike the story if it doesn’t fit our thesis, no matter how much time, effort and expense have been expended. We must be criminal prosecutors and prove our case rather than civil litigators where the burden of proof is on the claimant. We need a higher standard of proof.
For those in power, stop avoiding the media and being economical with the truth. If you have nothing to hide, and you can explain why you did something, what have you to fear? If you think you are worth half a million pounds you earn, make your case.
I get you are frightened, you could lose business in the short term, or even be forced to resign or close your company, but most journalists I have known are fair-minded, ethical and simply seek the truth.
Nothing will change, of course. Change relies on acknowledging that both sides have faults, and that won’t happen anytime soon. We are far too entrenched in our view that we’re on the side of right, and the others are the enemy.