Patron blog: Never has it been more important to be a journalist

In her role as patron, Alex Crawford, special correspondent for Sky News, will write a bi-monthly blog post for the NCTJ. Here is the first instalment: 

Never has it been more important to be a journalist. Never has it been more dangerous. And we’re not just talking war zones.

Increasingly, journalists are being taken down not just by random bombs and bullets, but also quite deliberately for exposing the truth; for asking uncomfortable questions; for refusing to be silenced.

Journalists are now denounced as ‘enemies of the people’ – not by an old-fashioned despot but by the leader of the free world. Take a minute to let that sink in.

We’re living in a society where the messenger is figuratively and literally being shot. As I write, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi still hasn’t been found after walking into his consulate in Istanbul about two weeks ago. Yet, despite increasingly lurid reports of what might have happened to him, no government has taken any concrete action. None. The outcry has instead been led by business and media groups who are pulling out of the Saudi investment conference planned for later this month.

So why would anyone want to be a journalist right now? It sometimes seems by opting to be a modern journalist, you’re strapping on a suicide vest because of the volley of attacks coming from all corners. But it’s more essential than ever there are well-trained, honest and committed reporters to rein in and challenge what’s happening from town council gatherings to international summits right across the globe.

And, right now, journalists need to set aside their natural competition with each other and rally round because an attack against one of us is an attack against us all. And an attack on journalism and independent media is an attack on freedom. In the end, we will all be affected.

The trainers, the guardians of our young recruits, the mentors of the next generation are crucial – and that puts a particular onus on the National Council for the Training of Journalists. I started out as an NCTJ trainee. I was inspired, encouraged and nurtured by incredibly patient and passionate tutors as well as a larger than life regional newspaper editor who gave me a chance when no-one else would. You don’t forget seminal moments like that.

It’s a huge honour to be asked to be the first NCTJ patron – and while I’m still struggling to understand how I’m considered anything like responsible enough to take up the position, I’m determined to do everything I can to help those just entering the profession.

My very first introduction to journalism was on an NCTJ course in Newcastle when I was just 18. Our tutors then, the estimable Walter Greenwood and Brian Marsden, used to set us naïve young trainees the task of bringing in potential stories which we were meant to have picked up on our way into the training room every morning. I can’t remember a single scoop or even usable story picked up by any of us but we used to delight in getting the tiniest of NIBs in the Newcastle Chronicle and Journal and my goodness that training - from shorthand, to law, to council procedure - has stood me in good stead throughout the years.

There’s nothing quite so sobering as an angry phone call from Mrs Bloggs of Bracknell about how you’ve mis-spelled her name to clear the cobwebs of a morning. The NCTJ taught me attention to detail is important. So is the inspiration gleaned from journalists who’ve trodden the same training path or those you come across years later showing extraordinary bravery to expose abuses.

My Sky crew (producer Neville Lazarus and cameraman Martin Smith) and I are acutely aware that but for an accident of birth and our particular passports, we could be sitting in jail right now in Myanmar alongside two of our Burmese colleagues from Reuters. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been sentenced to seven years in prison for reporting on atrocities committed by the Myanmar army in Rakhine State.

My crew travelled at night by boat into the same state at roughly the same period - where we discovered stranded Rohingya families including women and newborn babies who’d been trapped on a beach and left to die. The sights and sounds we saw appalled and shocked us.

We were able to escape with the evidence – the first independently obtained video footage from Rakhine State - and broadcast what amounted to terrible human rights abuses to the world - but then return a few weeks later to our families and friends in our homelands. Not so for the Burmese journalists and I’ve found myself screaming inside at the television as the court case against the Reuters reporters has rumbled on to its inevitable conclusion.

We must never forget how lucky we are as journalists – and also how fragile our position is and how steadfastly we must protect and guard our industry and those who work within it.

For those journalists just starting out, you are now needed more than ever and with accusations of fake news all the time, it’s more essential than ever that we are accurate and honest. And for those journalists like myself who’ve been around a bit longer, we need to keep fighting the fight – individually and collectively – because, without us, who will be there to ask the questions?

Alex Crawford, NCTJ patron