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Mick Temple's Blog

FREEDOM OF THE REST

05-07-2007

After Alan Johnston's release yesterday, Mick Temple reflects on the freedom of the press, and celebrates Britain's "feral" journalists.

I was in Singapore last week, at the World Journalism Education Congress. How the other half live, you might say ... but around the world many journalists know how difficult it is to stay alive.

There were over 400 journalism educators there from 45 countries and it was an invaluable experience talking to colleagues from other countries, especially those from Asia and Africa.

One of the things the conference was trying to establish is a set of universal journalistic principles that apply to training the next generation of journalists.

At the risk of sounding corny, it's made me more aware of how lucky we are in Britain. Many of the delegates at the conference live where journalism is still a dangerous trade.

Colleagues I talked to from, for example, China, Pakistan, Fiji, Saudi Arabia and, ironically, given the conference's location, Singapore, operate where criticism of the ruling elite is to invite arbitrary and, in some cases, fatal punishment.

Last Tuesday morning's edition of The Straits Times, Singapore's English language daily, carried speeches from the opening of the conference, including one from the editor-in-chief saying how lucky Singapore was to have such an effective and far-sighted government: 'we willingly play a strong nation-building role'.

Such toadying by the media is typical in authoritarian regimes. In fact, it's essential for their survival.

Tony Blair, of course, would have felt completely at home ruling such a country. No 'feral beasts' of the media to unleash their wolfhounds on him. Each of his vacuous speeches reported in full - bloody hell, no need to spin!

Just imagine Peter Mandelson's modus operandi in such a scenario - it's enough to make one's flesh creep.

How typical of Blair to cite only The Independent, arguably the least feral and most rational of all our daily newspapers. He lacked the courage to name the Sun and the Daily Mail, both ruthless and unpitying on occasion.

And that's not a criticism of those two papers. Our newspapers, whatever their flaws, have the freedom to expose the lies and shady practices of our rulers and the freedom to present and argue the case for unpopular or unfashionable views.

In a totalitarian regime, The Stirrer, with his trenchant comments on all levels of authority, would not last long before being put up against the wall and shot.

And his faithful legion of bloggers and contributors would have to watch their step: imagine your door being kicked down in the middle of the night because of your criticism of Solihull councillors.

What sounds ridiculous to us is a daily potential for many brave souls around the world. Journalists in Britain are rated as even lower than politicians in opinion polls.

But try and imagine a world without journalists willing to seek out and publish the truth about the machinations of our rulers.

That's really scary.

Which journalists and news organisations best use the traditional British “freedom of the press”? Which papers and broadcasters do you trust? Leave a comment on the Message Board in the Miscellaneous section.

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