With the Leveson Inquiry in full swing, the reputation of the press has never been lower. Yet the importance of holding to account those who wield power has never been greater. Enter The Journalism Foundation – a new organisation dedicated to promoting free and fair reporting around the world, writes Simon Kelner
I WORK IN an office in central London which has a communal area in which fellow tenants can make coffee and tea. There’s also a television on constantly, tuned to BBC 24′s news coverage, and every time anyone here boils a kettle, they turn to the TV, watch the live coverage from the Leveson Inquiry for a few minutes, and murmur quiet disapproval.
They see the Dowlers giving evidence about the egregious hurt they suffered at the hands of the British Press; or Gerry and Kate McCann explaining how our newspapers heaped anguish on tragedy after the disappearance of their daughter; or Chris Jefferies, landlord of the murdered Jo Yeates, telling the enquiry how a relentless media pack made his life a misery. It’s not Hugh or Steve or Sienna, with their eye-watering tales of harassment and trespass, that gets them going. After all, these are millionaires who had – arguably – made a contract with celebrity, and the rough treatment they got from the press was the other side of a coin called fame. No, it was the testimony of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances that has really struck a chord with the other ordinary people waiting for the kettle to boil.
Whatever touches them, however, it’s safe to say that journalism, and the people who practise it, and the men (yes, it’s all men) who control newspapers, have never been held in such low esteem by the public it is meant to serve. It is easy for we journalists to be defensive: this skulduggery was practised only be a small minority, and one of the prices to be paid for having the vibrant and diverse press we have in Britain is occasional unruliness born of competition. But that’s not quite the point, and in any case it shouldn’t be left to journalists to defend journalism. Better Thomas Jefferson, who said that, given a choice between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, he would unhesitatingly choose the latter.
That’s because journalism, one of whose purposes is perfectly described by the Palestinian writer Amira Hass as “to monitor the centres of power”, belongs to us all. Free speech, which we take for granted in the mature democracies of the West, is not the exclusive property of journalists, but is in public ownership, and beyond valuation. Against the backdrop of Leveson, it may be deeply unfashionable to say so, but journalism in all its forms can be, and usually is, an overwhelming force for good.
As we trawl through the gutter of the Street of Shame over the forthcoming months, it will be as well to remember that. In this context, today sees the launch of The Journalism Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation whose purpose is to promote, develop and support free, fair and independent journalism anywhere in the world through projects that have a direct and positive effect on people’s lives.
For instance, one of the characteristics of the Arab Spring, whose unpredictable after-effects are still being played out across the region, is the revolutionary zeal to take advantage of newly-won freedoms. The Journalism Foundation, in partnership with London’s City University, is setting up the first practical training courses for journalists in Tunisia, where more than 100 media companies have been granted business licences and 20 newspapers have launched since the downfall of the regime.
Of course, the definition of journalism itself is changing rapidly. It is no longer the preserve of professionals who work for traditional media: the internet has turned everyone with a point of view and a mobile phone into a de facto journalist, and millions of people around the world are blogging and tweeting to make their voices heard. To a significant extent, the Arab spring was a revolution made in cyberspace. Now, an imperfect democracy awaits them, and teaching journalists about what makes fair and accurate reporting is just as important as training policemen or judges.
“When it comes to reporting in a democracy we need to learn from the experience of others so that we can create our own,” says Mongi Aouinet, co-ordinator for the Tunisian journalists’ union. “It is like a new birth. We have almost everything to do, and that is where The Journalism Foundation can give invaluable help.”
The landscape is very different in the West. In many areas – even in thriving markets – local newspapers are dying, and this often leaves a big gap in the reporting of local affairs and regional politics. Not surprising, therefore, that there is a general disengagement with local politics, leading to the dismal turn-outs in regional elections. A few public-spirited individuals have taken the initiative in an effort to overturn this democratic deficit, and one such is Mike Rawlins who, disappointed with coverage of his local council in Stoke-on-Trent, set up his own website, titled Pits n Pots. There, you’ll find fair and honest coverage of local politics – even from careful reading of the site, it’s impossible to work out what Mike’s own leanings are.
It’s not just in the bedrooms of Benghazi and Tunis that change is fomented: much closer to home, there is another revolution going on. Citizen journalism is thriving in Britain, in town and in country, and a host of micro-websites or pop-up radio stations have sprung up to do the jobs that a local newspaper used to do, whether that’s reporting on the dog show or holding the council to account. Mike Rawlins’ site concentrates on the latter, in an admirably impartial way. Many of these projects lack the resources, or the direction or the propulsion to make them commercially viable. The Journalism Foundation is helping to fund Pits n Pots in an effort to increase its reach and effectiveness, and is actively seeking other projects in a similar vein to support.
Free journalism is under threat as never before. The financial pressure felt by media groups all over the world has meant two things: greater consolidation of ownership, and an imperative to drive down costs. And at the same time, the political reaction in Britain to the hacking scandal will probably result in tighter, and maybe even statutory, regulation. Yet in many ways, there has never been a better time for journalism, in all its guises. We live in much more open times: the access to once-classified information is greatly improved, and the methods of disseminating news are easier and cheaper.
The Journalism Foundation has been established to add fuel to the engine of change in media. It is the brainchild of Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev, owners of this newspaper, for whom freedom of speech is a touchstone issue. Evgeny Lebedev, chairman of The Independent, leads a board of trustees which includes Baroness Kennedy, the renowned human rights lawyer, Lord Fowler, former chair of the House of Commons media select committee, and Sir John Tusa, the former head of the BBC World Service. The Lebedevs are underwriting the principal running costs of the organisation so that every penny or cent raised goes directly to projects which fulfil the Foundation’s criteria of ethical journalism for the public good. Journalism itself has had a bad press recently: here is a positive initiative that seeks to redress the balance and, whatever you may think when following the latest developments from the Leveson Inquiry, it’s in all our interests that, if nothing else, we keep monitoring those centres of power. I hope people will support it with donations small and large.
Simon Kelner is chief executive of The Journalism Foundation.
This article was originally published in The Independent newspaper on 5 December, 2011