What drum do we march to?

TRUTH IS, notoriously, the first casualty of war. Rumours of war - and the attempt to "build public support" - dismember it at least as thoroughly. Some reporting in early 2003 gives off that aroma of expectation associated with really, really hoping that war does kick off.

Beating the drum of peace, Hyde Park 31/10/2002
Beating the drum of peace Just one of the protests that have taken place against the looming war was a "Critical Mass" bike ride in London on Halloween last year. This is, as far as we can tell, the first time it's been reported outside of uk.indymedia.org

Some of that reporting - not mentioning any proprietor or any Fox News USA in particular - smells, too, of encouraging it to kick off. What Sam Johnson originally warned of - war leading to "diminution of the love of truth" is more subtle and perhaps more sinister.

So what do we, as journalists, do about it? Do we - can we - march bravely to the beat of truth alone?

For one thing, we have to own up to personal temptation. There's no story as powerful as a war story. Imagine you're a defence correspondent and you've spent most of your career solely on the inadequacies of boots, and then... And of course, no other story sells as many papers as a war story. And it was the First Gulf War that saved CNN from extinction. But crass commercial considerations wouldn't influence reporting that could affect the future of civilisation. Would they?

There are much more complex forces at work. By convention, as soon as bullets start flying Parliaments and Assemblies go into war mode. Party-political conflict is suspended, lest it undermine Our Boys (who, these days, we ought to call Our Kids).

Media tend to follow suit. To explore why would take a book or three. But the counter-example that comes to mind, of a paper seriously breaking with the ranks, is the Observer, opposing the Anglo-French conspiracy to invade the Suez Canal Zone - back in 1956. The paper got hell. Readers fled.

And there are very simple forces at work. There's the threat of jail for breaking official secrecy. There's the simple denial of information. And during times of rumours of war, the "security services" may feel they can spoon anything they like into the gaping notebooks that need to fill a great deal of space by 4pm.

Of course, journalists should rise above all these forces.

Our first and only duty is to the truth, no? But, if you'll forgive a little lateral thinking, even this raises interesting questions.

Scientists, for example, also regard their first and only duty as being to the truth. And from that they - or rather those few who think seriously about what science is and how it's done - draw a conclusion that many journalists and all our paying outlets would have difficulty with.

If the enterprise is dedicated to truth, it can have no nationality. There can be no such thing as German science or Iranian science; just one, internationalist, science.

But just try telling an editor that the concept of "British journalism" is a contradiction in terms. Or that we have to pay equal attention to, say, the experiences of Geordie and Scottish and Kurdish and Iraqi fighters. There you go, undermining Our Kids.

Advocates of free speech "shall soon be obliged to meet in cellars, or in darkened rooms with closed doors, and speak in whispers lest our next-door neighbours should hear that free-born citizens dare not speak in the open."

Universities, too, are supposed to be dedicated to truth and they, too, are subject to this fear of disloyalty to the nation. In 1965 the University of California at Berkeley was the home of the students' Free Speech Movement, that sparked opposition to the war in Vietnam and much else besides. In January 2003 that same university suppressed a publication by its own archivist of the papers of Emma Goldman, an influential anarchist and trade unionist at the turn of the 20th century.

One of the quotations they forbade predicted that advocates of free speech "shall soon be obliged to meet in cellars, or in darkened rooms with closed doors, and speak in whispers lest our next-door neighbours should hear that free-born citizens dare not speak in the open."

On 10 February London Freelance Branch will not meet in a cellar. We will meet at the House of Commons. But we shall at least be discussing the difficulty of speaking in the open, and we hope to arrive at a better idea of how to do it.

Last modified: 27 January 2003 - © 2003 contributors
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