26 June 2014, The Tablet

Use and abuse of press freedom

Reacting to the jailing of three al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt and the sentencing in absentia of several others, Foreign Secretary William Hague rightly observed: “Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of a stable and prosperous society.” Press freedom is a value that needs to be defended by everyone, for it is exercised on behalf of everyone. But a particular responsibility lies with journalists and broadcasters. It was fitting that journalists working for the BBC, for instance, should leave their desks in London and Salford to take part in a silent protest demonstration this week. Governments and media organisations must continue the pressure on the Egyptian authorities, until the three are released.

As well as Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, there are other journalists in the news who may face jail sentences arising from their work; and the contrast is salutary. The former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, was found guilty by an Old Bailey jury of conspiracy to hack voicemail messages. Other journalists face trial over similar issues and some have already pleaded guilty and await sentence. His successor as editor at the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, was cleared of all charges, as were several others also on trial with her.

What happened at the News of the World was not proper journalism but the corruption of journalism, all the more shocking as that newspaper had a fine record in the exposure of wrongdoing. Circulation-building imperatives, for which Rupert Murdoch has to take some responsibility, drove tabloid newspapers to compete for items of gossip about people in the public eye, very little of which could be defended as being in the public interest. Some journalists on the News of the World found a cheap and easy route to these stories by listening to voicemail messages left by or for various celebrities, a practice which is illegal.

Mr Coulson sanctioned this, the jury decided, and Ms Brooks did not. In either case, the culture on this newspaper and probably others was both “anything goes” in news-gathering methods, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” in reporting to editorial management where stories had come from. Phone hacking was not the only illegal method alleged – bribery of public officials may have gone on as well, but the prosecution has so far failed to nail any culprits.

The Egyptian case, which involved interviews that al-Jazeera broadcasters had conducted with members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, was an attack on professional journalism from outside, primarily by the military Government that had overthrown President Mohammed Mursi. The News of the World scandal was an attack on professional journalism from within – a betrayal of trust by some of its most important practitioners.

The two are related, because misconduct by some discredits the whole. It makes it easier for the authorities in Cairo, for instance, to claim that those working for al-Jazeera were not seeking out the truth for the sake of the common good – in accordance with internationally accepted journalistic standards – but advancing an agenda which served the interests of al-Jazeera’s proprietors, the ruling family of Qatar. Just as journalists on the News of the World could be seen to be basking in the esteem of their proprietors – the Murdoch family – whose interests they also served. And that is where the finger still points.

What do you think?


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