Challenging journalist calls for more

THE NUJ should launch a crusade for challenging journalism, starting with a task force to take the campaign both to educators and to media owners, John Pilger told the London Freelance Branch newcomers' meeting at University of London Union on November 17.

The veteran campaigning journalist, best known for his work on the Mirror and, latterly, for television, said that "investigative journalism" required passion. Then he explained that, in his view, the phrase was misleading. It implied that "investigative journalism" meant only work done by a few big names. He argued that all journalism in every field should be investigative in its approach, that it should turn the rocks over to see what was underneath rather than accepting the received view.

Referring to his late friend Martha Gelhorn, he said that her principle was to "take a view from the ground" rather than to peer down from the perspective of "those who own things and run things". "I have a very old-fashioned view," he went on: "that journalists are people who keep the record straight."

Bowing to the current "convergence of politics into one ideology," journalists had undermined themselves by becoming absorbed in a prevailing cynicism about their audience and about the media generally. As a result, they were content to cover a story such as the contest for Labour's London mayoral nomination in terms of personalities- rather than the issues that would affect the voters' lives.

Further, he said, media courses which he attended as a guest speaker were locked into delivering jobs rather than raising the quality of journalism: "At one school I went to recently, they boasted that 80 per cent of their students went straight into jobs. I asked 'What jobs?' They said, 'The Sun, the Express...' I said, 'What's the point?'."

Finally, asked whether the union could have an active rôle in this area, he urged taking quality on as a crusade. Beyond the constant battle to improve pay and conditions and to promote the decent principles embodied in the Code of Conduct, he called for the creation of a "task force". This might, possibly, inaugurate an award, such as the new Martha Gelhorn Award which he and a group of her former colleagues has just launched.

Nuts & bolts

Thinking of future meetings, newcomers - that's to the union, to freelancing, or both - should be assured that more nuts and bolts issues were also covered. The meeting included more than an hour of questions to Pilger, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell and journalism lecturer and author Mr Brown.

The meeting was organised by LFB committee newcomers' representative and Secretary Molly Cooper. Send enquiries and suggestions about future meetings to her.

Jan/Feb 2000
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Last modified: 12 December 1999
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