Director of Journalism, the Reuters Institute
On: Freedom of Expression and the Media
7th April 2009
“Many thanks for the honour of asking me here. I want to put the issue of freedom of expression in an international context, as I believe we cannot discuss the issue in isolation. Freedom of the media is based on principles, principles for which historically people have struggled and died – in fact, are still suffering. The reality of freedom of expression is also about arrangement, compromise and negotiation. For people who live in diverse nations it matters to see how far they can push the issues. So I want to start by telling stories.
The first story is from China, and concerns an acquaintance of mine, a Chinese investigative reporter. You might think there is not much of a future in such a role in China, but they do exist, indeed there is a Chinese association of investigative journalists. My acquaintance works for a newspaper in the south of China, the Southern Metropolitan Daily. That newspaper takes her to various parts of China in search of stories of corruption by the authorities, stories which are instigated by phone calls or letters from people who want some kind of redress for the corruption that they experience. When she travels, she often goes to remote towns in very conservative – that is, very communist – parts of China which journalists rarely visit. She tries to stay with the complainant in a private address, because if she stays in a hotel she has to register. By doing this she is then known to the local police who are informed of her arrival and often try to get her out – sometimes by a bribe, or sometimes by escorting her to the train station or the airport. And yet freedom of expression, investigative journalism, goes on through people such as her.
The second story is from Russia, where I lived for some time as a correspondent in the early to mid part of the ’90s, the end of the Soviet Union – period of Michael Gorbachev, and the first four or five years of Boris Yeltsin. I returned in December of last year and met an acquaintance who had been the creator of a programme in the ’90s called Kookli. Kookli was based upon the ITV programme Spitting Image, where puppets took the part of people in public life, mainly politicians.
This programme ran very successfully on the first independent TV channel in Russia, called MTV, and chided politicians of the day quite strongly. Boris Yeltsin always appeared with a glowing red nose. Putin was always a shadowy figure in the wings. However, when Putin came to power succeeding Yeltsin, my colleague told me that Putin’s aides contacted the Kookli programme offering a deal. The programme could stay on the air if the programme did not concern itself with (a) corruption in public life, (b) the war in Chechnya (which was then at its height) and (c) it said nothing at all about Vladimir Putin. My colleague said in response, “That’s most of our programme,” so he refused the deal and the programme was then taken off the air.
My colleague now has a column in one of the few independent newspapers, he has a radio show on the independent and ant-regime radio station, he has a bog, writes books and he is generally doing fine. However, he can never appear on any of the main television channels. Quite recently a producer phoned him up and asked him to appear on a programme; my colleague said that the producer would not get away with it; the producer said that he would try, but the invitation never came. Sadly my contact also said that no one cares very much in Russia – until at least very recently.
Maybe now when times are changing, and people are not enjoying such a good standard of living as they have been for most of the recent period, they may start to challenge more.
Soon after meeting my colleague, in January a young female reporter for Novanya Gazeta, an independent newspaper, was shot dead. She was not the firsat. The most famed was Anna Politkovskaya, a fearless chronicler of the war in Chechnya, and was probably killed by someone from there, probably on the orders of the president of that region, President Kadyrov.
Other people from the newspaper have been threatened. The new owner of the Evening Standard here in the UK, Alexander Lebedev, a former member of the KGB, who bought the ES for a pound, also owns an interest in Novanya Gazeta. He claims that in Moscow no one in the Kremlin gives a damn about what has happened to people like Anna Politkovskaya. According to him, they have stolen hundreds of millions of roubles for the past four or five years, and they will sit there for the next 20 years with no parties, no elections, no media, no proper judicial system, and what is anyone going to do about it?
So there you have a situation in a country where there is formally a democracy, there are elections, parties, and indeed the president does change; there are media, many privately owned outlets, many formally free, and the constitution guarantees their freedom. Yet in actual fact, freedom of expression, including expression on the internet (which many thought would have been an alternative means), has been extremely curtailed.
Another acquaintance, a professor in one of the universities in Milan, is involved in a journal which has dedicated its most recent issue to remembering the journalist victims of the various mafia in Italy.
It detailed a list of journalists who have died both in Italy and abroad who have in the past two years tried to write about the mafia, investigate and expose them – it’s a long list, and these names deserve to be remembered. It is a list of journalists who were trying to do their jobs, to publish, to enquire. Currently the head of the ANSA press agency in Palermo, Lirio Abbate, is under permanent guard because of his exposing of the mafia – rather like Roberto Saviano, author of top-selling book Gomorrah (which has also been turned into a film), who had two attempts on his life and yet continues to publish on the mafia.
I think these three stories, from very different countries and quite different situations (in terms of their politics and the news media in them) illustrate something important. That is, that the threat to press freedom and freedom of expression can indeed come from the state. The Chinese state communist party has forbidden the publication of anything good about the movement in Tibet, or about Taiwan, and nothing negative can be printed about the communist party or its ministers.
In Russia there is a series of understandings regarding what you can get away with as journalists; indeed, many of those who lived there when journalism was much busier and television was very exciting have given up and acquiesce, or simply regard it as not worth trying any more. The intimidation comes from the state, using laws and the threat of prison. But the threat can also come from other sources – from criminal gangs, in Italy and in Russia. And perhaps most sadly, the challenge can come from the indifference of the public itself.
There are people in this audience whose job it is to ensure the widest possible freedom of expression – organisations such as Article 19, Index on Censorship, Open Democracy – these are groups that have this task and monitor the situation. We can probably conclude that we are better off than other countries, in some ways. The organisation which I helped found, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, has recently completed a study into the rules of journalism. One of the things we discovered from talking to people working in the media, was that those who had experience of making programmes in 1970s and 1980s were very often up against the government of the day – this very often reflected what was happening in Northern Ireland at the time. Such confrontation is very rare now – it is rare for government to come down on documentary makers etc. Libel is still a major issue in the UK, especially for a country with strong libel laws, but even here libel is less of a threat than it used to be.
Newspapers in the UK are self-regulated by the Press Complaints Commission, and although it is a controversial body, it is certainly one which is very alive to any kind of encroachment on the independence and freedom of the media.
There is a large case due in the UK on the issue of libel, coming from a Russian oligarch against one of our major newspapers. We will see then how far the libel laws will protect this man who has been accused by the newspaper of corruption, and how far the newspaper will be able to fight.
But as we know, newspapers in this country, almost uniquely amongst countries in the world, have a very vigorous tabloid culture. We therefore have a much more confrontational approach than most journalist cultures. When a leading TV presenter and newspaper columnist can call the Prime Minister a ‘one-eyed Scottish git’, and all it does is enlarge his after-dinner speaking fees, it says it all. Currently we have the media vigorously pursuing the standards of members of parliament. When there were plans to bring in custodial sentences for journalists who corruptly obtained information, a delegation of journalists headed by the editor of the Daily Mail went to see the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and the plans were dropped.
Tony Blair gave a speech on the media just before leaving office, when he said it is up to the media to hold itself to account – there is nothing much the government can do to intervene in a democratic state. In another interview, Blair said that the Labour Party perhaps tried too hard to win over the press magnates – if you make that mistake, you must take into account the power of the media in the UK, and if all the papers turn against the government or the leader of the opposition, that person can then be destabilised to the point of losing power. Look what happened to Neil Kinnock, who effectively said, “To hell with them.” Politicians in this country have a very careful view of the press. Blair said that if you have the press against you, then the business of government becomes much more difficult.
So the power of the popular press in this country is stronger than anywhere else. Some years ago, when I was talking to a French diplomat, I was aware of how surprised he was, shocked even, that the then new-leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard, had given his first interview to The Sun. For a leading politician to do this to a tabloid paper made no sense to the French diplomat; it makes eminent sense in our media culture, because of the power of the tabloids.
As a budding reporter on a Scottish newspaper I found a story concerning a fisherman and his order of second boat – there was an argument over the late delivery of the boat, so I wrote this up in the best tabloid style I could, and took it along to the East Fife Observer. The editor took the paper which had been carefully typed out on my typewriter and promptly handed it back to me. “I can’t use it,” he said. “But it’s true,” I replied. “That’s why I can’t use it!”
Today the threat to press freedom comes, not from the government, but from the greater threat of local and national newspapers closing down. The real crisis of the press is circulation and advertising fall, and all of us now are suffering enormously from it. A colleague in New York who is a successful website operator was mocking my fears. He asked whether it was conceivable that an innovation as powerful as the internet could in the next 10-20 years throw up something that is better than newspapers and television; he told me I was mourning an old technology, whereas something better may arise.
The question for me which I leave with you is if all newspapers close, as they are now doing in US and elsewhere, what happens when they and television channels pull back from regional and local news? This has already happened in local and independent television, programmes such as World in Action, Weekend World, This Week, these have disappeared – programmes with analysis and investigation. What happens in the period between the brave new world of the internet and now… what happens in that gulf between then and now?
What happens when you lose institutions of power, such as large newspapers, which are the leaders of their trade, what happens when they go? What happens when you no longer have the power behind these to hold other powers to account?
If journalism’s claim, as it is, is that we hold power to account, our reason for existing, if that is no longer possible because we no longer have behind it an institution of power, what happens to the media? However talented a blogger might be, or someone with a website, if they have no power behind them, how do they get their features, who tells them things, how do they get the information that leads to an investigation, how would the investigation expose, for example, what happened in Abu Ghraib.
What we must ensure above all is the power for journalists. We must ensure that this power, the best power, the reason for journalism which is in the public interest, that this should not fall by the wayside. That I believe is the biggest threat to the freedom of the press, the freedom of media, and it is that which we want to avoid at all cost.”