With the launch and publication of Investigative Journalism Today: Speaking Truth to Power, we have entered an argument on one of the really important questions of our day, if you believe, as I do, that a properly free press is actually as important as the rule of law and democracy itself. (In India, where I spent some of my working life, there is a rule of law but it is incredibly slow, there is real democracy, but the element in civil society that does mean that corruption doesn’t always win is the fact that there is a vibrant and dedicated free press. I know it isn’t perfect, but it is a great bulwark in India.)
I am old enough to remember samizdat – which was the copying and distribution of information banned by the regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe. It seems to me that what we are witnessing at the moment is the revival of samizdat in one real sense as trust in our main stream media is eroded and this has an important effect on journalism.
That erosion of trust is fomented partly by the blatant dissemination of lies, by politicians and rich people with access to printing presses and broadcast facilities, but also by our own trusted organisations, like the BBC. Since 2010, there has been a silent revolution at the BBC as the governance has been subverted by the Tory government which has put its place-people in charge, and they, in turn, have recruited people sympathetic to their views to edit and control the news. For many people programmes such as R4’s Today and BBC1’s Question Time have become so biased against holding power to account, that they are barely able to listen to or watch them. (The person in charge of audience selection for the latter has deliberately skewed the audience, and therefore who asks questions and what the agenda is.) Against this environment, and with circulation – and more importantly – advertising revenues collapsing for printed media, with thousands deserting heretofore trusted programmes, journalism is under threat. I’m not sure the threat is bigger than ever before, I only know that the threat is palpable.
By journalism I don’t mean opinion, news about celebrities and companies that has been manufactured by the celebrities and the companies – who are apparently asked to pay newspapers like the Evening Standard in London for favourable reports in the paper – or propaganda. I mean reporting of facts that can be independently verified, which have been tested by the writer and which reveal or expose (depending upon the nature of the issue) something that affects people’s lives.
That latter sort of writing and investigation has always been under threat and likely to be squeezed out of our consciousness. It is salutary to remember that one of the biggest purveyors of half-truths (to be kind) in the UK is the Daily Mail which is owned and controlled by offshore billionaires who don’t pay taxes in the UK – and which in the 1930s lauded Hitler, and the UK’s fascists, the Black Shirts, to the skies.
This is where modern samizdat has started to have a really important role – and is starting to prove that journalism – real journalism – is not dying but is being distributed through different means. For example there were Robert Fisk’s reports from Syria about the alleged chemical attacks earlier this year, where a man known for thirty years as being an honest and highly truthful journalist, that you could respect, painted an entirely different picture from that presented by our government and the BBC. Fisk’s reports were carried not by the BBC – and I am told there was not one mention across the BBC of them, not refuted by the government, but were distributed via Twitter and some of the online news sites. I for one would never have known of Fisk’s counter-story without access to Twitter. That’s not to say that Fisk was accurate or had been given the right information, but he had been on the spot, he had interviewed a range of people and he did write without an axe to grind – raising real questions. Those questions need to be answered.
Funding this journalism is the key question – and we have seen the rise of crowdfunding, subscription services and other methods. I’m not sure that they are successful yet, but I for one would be really pleased if the funding for this journalism is an assault on the current supine BBC, and the use of the printing press by offshore billionaires to promulgate their own reactionary views, with a cynical disregard for the people who live in the UK and whose taxes they rely on to give them the infrastructure to distribute their misinformation. My own experience – commissioning a book on investigative journalism today and reading the contributions of twelve journalists from all different perspectives – has given me some cause for optimism that journalism isn’t dead, that samizdat methods will give a new lease of life to men and women – often very brave – who are focused on truth. You might find Investigative Journalism Today: Speaking Truth to Power, really worth reading – and see whether you agree with the conclusions.