Our job is the truth

The union's Press & PR Branch organised an open meeting on "Reporting War - professional issues faced by journalists" on 1 November.

How do we respond to what is happening in Afghanistan? Horror, fear, powerlessness, rage? Disbelief at the sick minds that could call the second most powerful weapon ever made a "daisy cutter"? Or support?

Obviously everyone's reaction will be different, as will be the action they want to take as individuals in response. But how should we react as members of the NUJ?

The message coming through strongly from an open meeting organised by the NUJ's Press and PR branch on 1 November was that our job was to encourage truthful reporting and to challenge war propaganda in all its forms.

City University senior lecturer Dr Richard Keeble said there were rare journalists working in the mainstream media who were critical and sceptical about everything told them by the military and intelligence services. "Intelligence services, like the military, are out of control and journalists are extremely vulnerable to their fantasies if they don't double and treble check."

He named Robert Fisk in the UK and Seymour Hersch in the US as examples and urged all journalists to be more like them. "I want them to have the courage to express their outrage," he said.

Pakistani journalist Beena Sarwar said that in Pakistan access to the web had become a crucial way of hearing alternative voices and reading coverage that looked at the economic and other causes of the conflict - but it was restricted to the privileged.

"The more passive news consumer doesn't hear about the Bush oil connections and the need to access oil from the Central Asian Republics. We have to get behind the headlines, behind the beards," she said.

Arjun Wajid, who freelances for the BBC World Service, said she had not experienced "any obvious or active effort to control us". But she accepted that journalists responded to what they thought their editors or their listeners wanted. It was often the practicalities of news reporting that determined what was broadcast. You worked down your wish list of six possible interviewees but "at the end of the day you go for the nearest mullah".

A BBC journalist who didn't give his name because of BBC rules about expressing opinions reminded the meeting that the BBC complaints line received two to three times as many calls complaining about "pro-Taliban coverage" as they did comments from those opposed to the war.

Journalist editor Tim Gopsill warned against the way that the BBC slipped into "ministry of information mode", broadcasting for Britain and not to it. He singled out the use of "the loyal we" as evidence of this shift in perspective and suggested the phrase "the allies" had a particular resonance because of the Second World War that was not appropriate to the position the UK was now in.

Tim, who acts as the union's press officer, also defended the fact that the NUJ's National Executive Council's statement on the war did not condemn the bombing.

"The statement is concerned with matters just as relevant and just as contentious," he said. The union's job was to engage with its members and raise questions about their individual responsibility. "To take a position in advance would be to do what we criticise the mainstream media for - starting from a position on the war and gearing their coverage to that."

The meeting called on NUJ branches of the union to take forward the debate and to organise other meetings with members, particularly in chapels, and to provide support to members in their efforts to report the war honestly.

Members were recommended to look at the websites of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting www.fair.org and Media Workers Against the War www.mwaw.org.

Meanwhile London Freelance Branch is expecting to have a speaker to its 10 December meeting to talk about journalists' safety and accuracy in reporting.

The NUJ and the International Federation of Journalists are recommending that journalists do not travel to Afghanistan or other dangerous places unless they are experienced, trained, have suitable equipment and are insured.

An IFJ report Journalism, Civil Liberties and the War on Terrorism, on international media coverage and the introduction of repressive legislation is available on www.ifj.org.

Last modified: 22 November 2001 - © 2001 contributors
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