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Journalistic Integrity16 July 2011 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
What is the difference between Julian Assange, responsible for WikiLeaks, and Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s former communications chief and ex-editor of the News of the World? Many people will consider one a hero and the other a villain. Papers that published juicy details from WikiLeaks now shed crocodile tears over the British hacking scandal.
What is allowed when gathering news? A lot, when it concerns Watergate or the way expenses are claimed by MPs. Yet at the same time we all agree that you cannot eavesdrop on the parents of a murdered girl or a soldier killed in action.
But should stolen internal memos from American diplomats or the American army really be published? When you come across a video of an army helicopter shooting at innocent civilians, or find messages about torture, it’s clear. But should you reveal an ambassador’s comments on the leader of a friendly nation? What is the point of internal communications about Angela ‘Teflon’ Merkel?
One way or another, when I see Julian Assange’s face I think: if this is the new image of journalism, we have a problem.
But how do you create news? Nobody will inform a journalist about a scandal if it will harm them. There isn’t a single politician who will reveal he loves pinching secretaries’ bottoms.
Papers operate on a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not. When does a journalist turn into a sensation monger? This is actually the same as asking: when does a freedom fighter turn into a terrorist?
Each time it needs to be decided if an issue matters enough to cross the fine line. It is important to ensure you serve the general, and not the personal interest.
How would the regional papers handle these things? Papers sporting lovely names such as the Sheffield Weekly Gazette, the Nottingham & Long Eaton Topper and the Milton Keynes Citizen, or Provinciale Zeeuwse Courant, a Dutch example.
Take the local star reporter – you know the type, dressed in an ill-fitting suit with a slightly too flashy tie. Of course, he wouldn’t hesitate for a minute to elicit a piece of information from a drunken councillor in the pub. ‘Sure, I won’t tell a soul, Harry!’
When it is about an extramarital affair, the paper should ignore it. However, if it concerns fraud, I would advise: publish it immediately!
Advertisers complicate things. Do you write nasty pieces about them? I think, the smaller the community served by the paper, the more things are intertwined. People run into each other at drinks parties, receptions, outside the children’s school and in the local bakery. It is enough to make you claustrophobic.
It starts innocently enough. A reporter writes an enthusiastic review of a performance by the local choir. He exaggerates a bit: the choir is not that good, but the neighbours sing in the choir.
And what about the conscience of the average citizen? We have all come across it: you tell others about something when you shouldn’t have. Hans Keilson, a writer who died recently aged 101, put this neatly into words: enemies will recruit themselves from former friends.
With the emergence of the internet, everyone has become a journalist, even if it is just on Twitter. What do you write about and what do you leave out?
One of the leading Dutch newspapers blamed British consumers’ hunger for news for the hacking scandal. It is as if a cruel dictator were to declare: ‘It’s what the people want.’
You can only hope that journalists will keep their work within bounds.
If you really want to learn more about human nature, I would recommend this: read a novel. A writer can even reflect what people think. He can ‘look inside someone’s head’. This doesn’t always cheer you up. So I am off to buy a copy of Hello!
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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