Patron blog: "Journalism is under assault like never before"

In her role as patron, Alex Crawford, special correspondent for Sky News, writes a bi-monthly blog post for the NCTJ. Here is June's instalment: 

Journalism is at a crossroads. If we take the wrong route at this point the ambushes, the attacks and the grenades will keep on flying and the future for truth, impartiality and independence will look dismal indeed.

At the risk of repeating myself, journalism is under assault like never before – from presidents, prime ministers, press spokespeople and, perhaps most damaging at all, the public masquerading as journalists.

Social media has given rise to blogs, vlogs, YouTube channels, Facebook pages and personal twitter bases which often dwarf newspaper circulations and television channel-viewing numbers. Right now though, strict rules, codes of conduct, policies, watchdog pressure – and the censorship that goes along with that - apply only to bona-fide journalists and media outlets.

For everyone else, it’s a free-for-all. And in this wrestling match for viewers or likes or maybe just attention, there is a danger some of the genuine journalists are opting to jump into the bear pit along with the pretenders, just to hear the loud roar of approval and maybe see their tweets go viral.

Let’s separate the myriad issues. Firstly, journalism and journalists are having the proverbial s**t kicked out of them (more on personal swearing later). Take CNN: bombarded by accusations of lies, manipulations, dishonesty and fake news – by none other than the President of the US. Now CNN’s rivals may sit back and smirk and maybe take some weird pleasure out of their competitor squirming and struggling, losing revenue and staff as a result of these unprecedented attacks. But take a moment to think about the long-range implications because this behaviour will fester and flourish and bite us all eventually.

Likewise with the BBC. The constant sniping from politicians, and from apparent analysts and academics, about how independent, right-wing or left-wing their various journalists and commentators may be only gives succour to the many trolls and propagandists out there who DO have an agenda.

So when Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby and the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg (who regularly get called out for being biased) are lambasted by ANOTHER journalist for asking perfectly justifiable questions of Boris Johnson over his ambitions to be PM, I despair.

Both women were jeered and ridiculed by those at Johnson’s media launch. Did that sniggering and intimidation come from his political supporters, his staff or from other journalists – or even an unhealthy combination of all three? None of those possibilities should bring any joy to anyone, never mind any upstanding journalist or party worker attempting to try to get their man into Number 10.

It’s bad enough trying to survive the snakes on Twitter who spout religious hatred, racism, misogyny and general intolerance, without having to navigate those same attitudes from fellow journalists or from people who are trying to gain trust and votes to draft legislature and form cultural ties and diplomatic bridges across the world.

Everyone who giggled and joined in at the media launch should be ashamed of themselves – and those who sat silently by watching and listening and not saying anything maybe should have a re-think about whether that’s the right way to approach this scourge too. Because, make no mistake, journalism is being eroded before our eyes and journalists seem incapable of standing together and defending it and each other.

Are we so bent on getting one over on each other that we’re losing sight of the real ball? Our problem should not be other journalists. It should be the malignant forces out there bent on destroying the truth-getters and independent-thinkers. The competition now is not whether ITN has managed to get an exclusive that BBC doesn’t have or Sky has got somewhere and found out something that Channel Four hasn’t. It’s convincing the wider public we’re worth listening to and paying heed to at all. 

That task involves some – wait for it – collaboration in fighting these malevolent forces. And maybe, just maybe, that collaboration involves collectively defending fellow journalists against unfair, unjust, outrageous accusations of bias, dishonesty and wrong-doing. We can’t be turning on each other. This is not the way to defend and protect the pillars of good journalism.

 

Secondly we, as an industry, need to take on the ‘citizen-journalists’. They perhaps do have a role but their contributions need to be accompanied by hefty ‘health warnings’. I am not sure the way to preserve journalism is to fudge, blur and muddy the waters between those trained with solid backgrounds in journalism and those who are just citizens with cameras.

Every right-thinking channel and media outlet rightly prides itself on its independence – and constantly fights accusations that it’s not skewed. As a person who’s worked for an organisation whose biggest shareholder was Rupert Murdoch, I’ve fought claims for about 30 years of being ‘a Murdoch employee’ (whatever that means but it seems to imply loss of independence and absence of clear, unbiased thinking).

Yet I’ve never once been told how to write a story; what angle to take; even what nuance to give it. I’ve never been told to change a particular direction in any of my reports to suit a particular narrative. It’s just never happened.

Now, I am positive there will be many out there who will just refuse to believe this, but when media organisations take on civilians, or activists, and pump out their stuff as their own – then the arguments become very difficult to keep on making. I’m not talking about commissioned material, paid for at recognised rates, for freelancers operating in difficult-to-get-to places, (although that’s another argument.) I believe there probably needs to be a clear acknowledgement that they are NOT journalists; that their material hasn’t gone through the same rigorous filters as an independent piece from a trained journalist. Because if we are saying anyone out in the field in a difficult spot can produce the same quality material as a trained journalist, then what is the point of training at all, of young people going to university to do journalism degrees or any other film-making or reporting course? 

Editors need to be discriminating in their commissioning and mindful of the future – and the present. Because if we are eroding our skills and experience to the point of being worthless or indeterminable, then what have we left? Of course, first-hand eye witness accounts are invaluable. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the wholesale replacement of journalists with citizens – just because they happen to be there.

There is obviously a morally questionable cost implication as well as insurance implication as well as the screamingly loud training implication. Likewise with ‘commentators’ who also masquerade as journalists, but again are either unaware of the strict boundaries most journalists have to abide by – or simply don’t care. And likewise the editors who employ them and appear not to care – so long as these agitators can create enough attention for people to buy the newspaper or click on the online story. But what it’s done is denigrate real journalists and real journalism.

 

Thirdly, for God’s sake let’s get back to genuine issues for the greater good and set aside tribal rivalries. I’ve just come back from a pretty lively trip to Idlib in Syria, now under the control of Hayaat Al Sham (HTS), a group deemed a terror outfit by the UK, US and others.

My crew and I narrowly escaped a deliberate shelling by the Syrian regime - targeting us as journalists I believe - despite being clearly identified as such. I was also wearing a black abaya (long Muslim dress) denoting I was a woman or a civilian IF they failed to see our PRESS markings...I stunned myself with the number of expletives I found hidden in my vocabulary as we scrambled to safety. It was terrifying and far too close. I got dozens and dozens of messages from friends, colleagues, rivals and people I didn’t know. Thank you for that. You’ll never know how much they mattered.

At the same time though, I came under sustained attack on social media for my apparent bias; for going into the region in the first place; for wearing Muslim clothing; for apparently not stressing enough that HTS are considered a terror organisation.

This co-ordinated trolling from the Syrian regime and Russian organisations is the new way to persecute and intimidate journalists. But what I was disgusted by was similar suggestions from admittedly just a handful of journalists (who hadn't been able to get inside Idlib) about the wisdom of co-ordinating with HTS, talking to HTS sympathisers and activists and being inside Idlib at all.

Seriously? Are we now saying we don’t go to certain places because there are unsavoury characters with whom to take issue? I remember we got the same criticism about talking to the Taliban way back in 2006/7/8. Now governments are trying to carve out peace deals with them. By that same argument, journalists wouldn’t be talking to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Rohingya in Myanmar/Bangladesh, ISIS prisoners in northern Syria. 

On our Idlib trip, we were joined by an anti-Assad activist called Bilal who’d left his home in New York three years ago, he says to ‘tell the truth no-one else is telling’ in Syria. He describes himself as a ‘journalist’. A journalist, he is not. He’s a one-man propaganda machine and is unapologetic and frank about siding with the aims and ambitions of HTS, the ‘rebels’ and opposition to the Syrian regime. He turned up where we were unexpectedly and uninvited and tagged along with us. We hadn’t met him before and he was not working with us. He had zero influence on our report but was injured in the attack and we helped bandage him up. We didn’t see him before our venture into that zone nor after. He was with us for maybe half an hour. But because he happened to be with when we were shelled, he proved a terrible distraction. 

 

What has happened to us as an industry, as a profession? Now I am having to field accusations of being an Al-Qaeda sympathiser from both idiot trolls on Twitter and mainstream journalists. I should not be the issue here. The fact that hundreds of civilians are being killed and injured inside a buffer zone and during an agreed ceasefire is the issue. The fact that fellow journalists are being targeted IS the issue. The news is the issue and that’s what we should be concentrating on, exposing and highlighting as journalists. There are war crimes being committed in Syria – on both sides. Today. Now.

We should be setting our sights on polishing, promoting and supporting genuine journalism and taking it to a higher standard. Not attempting to dismantle, discredit or undermine those in the same profession. There are plenty outside the industry bent on doing just that without help from inside too. The crossroads is here and we still just about possess the choice of direction.