The new threats to journalism

Amol Rajan
Media editor
@amolrajanon Twitter

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt have criticised Donald Trump's rhetoric against journalists

Foreign secretaries often make a habit of attaching themselves to some cause deemed marginal or eccentric by their diplomatic corps.

William Hague, for instance, took a very close interest in the appalling treatment of women in war zones, and specifically war zone rape and Female Genital Mutilation. He partnered with the actor Angelina Jolie on this cause.

Jeremy Hunt has taken a close interest in media freedom around the world, arguing a free press embodies Enlightenment values and promotes democracy - which as it happens is enduring something between a recession and re-calibration.

He has partnered on this cause with the lawyer Amal Clooney, and the Canadian government, where in former journalist Chrystia Freeland he has found an ally.

Media caption,
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt says media freedom is a universal cause

Why this issue? The cynical and naïve, yet common, interpretation is that being seen to support journalists will make this ambitious politician receive better treatment from them.

This argument runs aground on the lack of evidence for especially favourable treatment for Mr Hunt from journalists here or around the world.

A better interpretation sees it as smart strategy. The very profound challenge to democracy, whether from autocratic China or through the stresses within the West, is a threat to the world order that Britain helped to create after 1945. Retaining British influence in the world means sticking up for a certain collection of values, of which democracy is key.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where I worked many years ago, has a mission statement to promote the UK's interest overseas. If you believe that a free press, which this country has had for centuries, is valuable, then it follows that promoting a free press around the world helps spread British values. And that is in British interests.

Incidentally, there is an irony here, which is that Britain is not the paragon of independent media some claim. Parts of Fleet Street fought the idea of independent regulation of the press, as recommended by Lord Leveson, with religious zeal, arguing it would betray a noble tradition.

Those proposals have gone away, despite the wishes of many victims of press abuse, and following extensive lobbying by the newspaper industry.

Yet the more insidious threat to a free media within this country may come instead from the creeping incursion of the law, and therefore the police, into journalistic territory.

There have been calls for the police to investigate who leaked Sir Kim Darroch's diplomatic cables to the journalist Isabel Oakeshott.

In Belfast, journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were arrested in August 2018 over the suspected theft of confidential files. The journalists had been working on a documentary about the Loughinisland attack in 1994. A court ruling has since been made that the search warrants issued against them had been "inappropriate". Police have dropped their investigation into the men, who say it has been a traumatic time for them.

Media caption,
Documentary journalist Trevor Birney explains about how his and Barry McCaffrey's arrests have affected their lives.

True belief

The last, and most radical interpretation, is that Mr Hunt actually believes this stuff. That is certainly possible: he has given considerable time to it, and told me off camera that the idea behind the conference held in London's Docklands area is that it should be the first of several.

If Ms Freeland remains in post, and committed to the issue, Canada will be the venue for the next such event. Of course, quite what job Mr Hunt will be doing this time next year is unclear.

Mr Hunt's commitment to a rambunctious and plural media hasn't always led to smart decisions, however. As culture secretary, he visited the US and was impressed by local TV services there. A network of local TV stations was set up in this country, and arguments were mobilised in its defence that are very similar to those heard today: a plural media is good for democracy, etc.

The local TV network in this country has been a failure, for reasons - lack of scale, and therefore lack of appeal to advertisers - which were predictable.

A trade in crisis

The timing of today's conference, which was obviously planned long before Mr Hunt announced his bid for the Tory leadership, has reinforced a sense of urgency around the issue.

Journalists care about the future of journalism a lot more than most people, of course; but it is true to say most people who bother to think about the subject know they have an interest in proper journalism. And the many vast challenges facing the industry around the world have been compounded by political winds of change.

The difficulty of finding a sustainable business model in journalism has been exhaustively documented.

Less well known is the fact that there are big, growing regions of the world that are reportorial black holes, because it is so dangerous for reporters to get in there. Think of parts of Syria, Yemen, and the Sahel.

Into this vacuum has stepped the revolutionary power of open-source investigation, of the kind championed by Bellingcat.

But an additional threat to the trade comes from populism. The rise of strongmen leaders around the world, from President Trump to Prime Minister Modi, has created a new climate of intolerance toward journalists, many of whom are now facing constant hostility.

Media caption,
Press freedom is in a state of crisis in India according to one of its most experienced journalists, Sagarika Ghose

In some democracies, journalists are suddenly presumed guilty until proven innocent.

The beatings given to journalists in India, and the verbal beatings meted out by President Trump, are both motivated by the (generally) false belief that journalists are part of a crooked elite that is conspiring against the public.

Many journalists do appalling things every day, have hidden agendas or base morals, and poison the public domain. But a majority don't.

Restoring trust in them, particularly in an era of unreliable information, will require outstanding journalism that inspires the public, and a culture willing to make heroes of such reporters. That, in turn, can only happen if there is reliable financing for high-quality and independent journalism. And the best guarantee of independence is profit.

Therefore the conference announcements may be valuable in supporting heroic deeds around the world; but all serious journalists feel at least a bit queasy by taking government money, even if - as in the case of the BBC World Service - there is a strong tradition of editorial independence.

The greatest hope for reporters around the world today is that the support they are getting, whether from rich governments or philanthropists, can help them achieve the scale to be commercially viable.

At that moment, when revenues overtake costs for a sustained period, and editorial ambition is rewarded by a paying audience, journalism of the best kind can flourish.

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