13th February 2012
The Responsibility of the Press
The backbone of any democracy is an independent, professional and responsible media. Their role is to inform, criticise and stimulate debate. So how can the media be encouraged to step up to this vital role?
One initiative launched a few years ago by the UK’s Thomson Foundation – and funded by the British Embassy – is the Inquirer Award, given to excellence in investigative journalism in TV, print and photojournalism in Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
Prizes this year went to stories about pesticides in Palestine, sexual abuse in families and the plight of foreign workers in Beirut. The TV prize was won by a Jordanian working for Ro’ya TV for investigating conditions in Al Hashimiya district.
Mark Twain once said: “stupid people – who constitute the overwhelming majority of this and all other nations – believe and are convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.”
I wouldn’t entirely agree with Mr. Twain. The crucial point is credibility. For the media to be credible it has to take responsibility for getting its facts right. That means digging deep, talking to a range of people to get the different sides of the story, and checking their facts rigorously. It should not hesitate to root out and expose lies, hypocrisy and corruption, but has to be sure of its facts before doing so.
Credibility also means avoiding exaggeration or scare-mongering just to sell more newspapers. Stories based on rumours or sourced from someone with an axe to grind are what makes people joke that you can’t believe anything you read in the papers or see on TV.
Being responsible not only means telling the truth, but also abiding by the law and being honest in the way a journalist gathers information. If the press drifts into law-breaking, then it loses the respect of its readers and the nation.
This happened in the UK when journalists were accused of accessing the mobile phones and voicemails of people, including members of the royal family, well-known politicians, actors and sportsmen as well as the family of a murdered schoolgirl and the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The disgust that followed led to the closure – after 168 years – of one of the biggest newspapers in the country. And just this week, journalists on the UK’s biggest circulation tabloid were arrested on suspicion of corruption.
Those in the public eye should not fear or be defensive about the press. If a politician dislikes criticism from the press, then he is definitely in the wrong job. As a British politician said many years ago: “for a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.”