The UK National Commission for UNESCO and the Press Freedom Network have convened today’s debate at the Frontline Club on the motion “Governments at war are winning the battle of controlling the international media”. The proposers are Andrew Gilligan (Evening Standard) and Jamie Shea (Private Office of the Secretary General of NATO) and the opposers are Jeremy Dear (General Secretary, National Union of Journalists) and Alan Fisher (Al Jazeera English). William Horsley is the debate chair.
My interpretations of what was said by the speakers:
- Wars create a sellers market in news; demand increases but supply reduces in times of war. Wars are confusing. It’s in the interest of those running the battle to keep things confused. Embeds provide most of the reporting on ongoing wars as in Afghanistan. This makes news much more uncontroversial than they should be (Andrew Gilligan)
- The voices of those suffering are given life by journalists. War on terror has been accompanied by a war on civil liberties. Journalists have risked their lives and been killed as they try to lift the veil of secrecy. Despite censorship, a complete blockade of news is not possible given the existence of mobile ‘phones, computers and the Internet (Jeremy Dear)
- “No pictures, no news” – governments are quick learners. Do governments make mistakes? “Yes”. Do they learn from their mistakes? “Yes”. Governments keep the journalists always occupied – keeping them in constant briefings, so they cannot go off and find out things for themselves! We no longer need to work through the media – governments create their own media networks – such as NATO TV. Instead of using the press to get the message out, we now use pundits who are sympathetic to our cause. “Anyone can be his or her own journalist”. The profession has become democratised – so why cannot governments join in? A good press helps those of us in government who believe in accurate information (Jamie Shea)
- Journalists can now report immediately from the frontline; in the old days ‘geography’ mattered, but this is no longer true. Governments are losing the battles because there are now more ways of accessing the truth than ever before – the bloggers and the twitters… But the answer is not simply as a result of these new technologies. Technology is one of our biggest assets – it is getting smaller and better all the time (Alan Fisher)
My thoughts and comments from the floor:
- There was a tendency to imply that journalists are the arbiters of the truth. But are they? I think not. We all bring parts of ourselves to the truths that we espouse.
- A key theme, though, is the distinction between “independent journalism” and “public sector broadcasting” – independent voices are really important
- I liked the comment from the floor that “journalists are concerned with their own greed”!
- I echo the thoughts of a speaker from the floor who said that African governments are taking advantage of so-called press freedom – many African peoples do not have a choice
- Much of the debate is indeed ethnocentric – despite global telecommunications
- An African channel about whom the joke is “not wrong for long”!
- Relationships between governments and the free press have to be based on mutual respect (Jamie Shea)
- I would agree with Andrew Gilligan that very few people can actually get to the frontline of war zones – and therefore that professional journalists have a key role to play
- I enjoyed Alan Fisher’s comments on the Georgia-Russia war – journalists on the ground can directly contradict what government spokespeople are saying
- Do governments collude in disinterest? Is that why we don’t hear much about continuing violence in places such as DRC?
- From the floor: “credibility has nothing to do with truth”
- From the floor: “Deep in the Congo forest you cannot use your mobile ‘phone”.
- From the floor: “In many countries, to get a SIM you still need to give your identity”
- How many African countries really support freedom of the press?
- In so many parts of the world, local journalists do not have the power actually to report because of government restrictions
- Jeremy Dear emphasised the fundamental importance of journalists supporting each other in the face of oppression from governments
- Andrew Gilligan: “bloggers have no credibility and little reach”
Who won the debate? In favour: 38; Against: 15; Abstentions: 9.