Socialist Worker

Tim Lezard: ‘Journalists must not be silenced’

The NUJ journalists’ union has been one of the most consistent voices against the war in Iraq. NUJ president Tim Lezard spoke at a Media Workers Against the War rally in London last week.

Issue No. 1992

Some NUJ members have been unhappy about our opposition to the war, saying as journalists our job is to be impartial.

To them, I say, “If you can stand back and be impartial as up to 100,000 Iraqi civilians are slaughtered for no good reason, that’s up to you. But as a human being, I find that impossible.”

As a trade union, we are committed to peace, and as journalists we are masterly with words, but no amount of spinning can turn the Iraq war into a success story.

The reality is that the elections have solved none of the fundamental problems for Iraq. The killings and bombings are increasing and there can be no peace until the occupation is ended.

But this is a reality you will find reflected in too little of the media. But that’s not surprising when you consider comments made by Sir Ray Tindle, owner of one of Britain’s major regional press groups, who told his editors, “Nothing should appear which would attack the decision to conduct the war”, and banned them from running anti-war stories, pictures or letters.

That’s not surprising when you consider all 73 of Rupert Murdoch’s papers, all over the world, coincidentally adopted the same pro-war position as their owner.

We’ve also come under attack from the state, which has restricted freedom of movement, increased surveillance of individuals and their communications, and undermined the cardinal principles of democracy – free expression, open government and people’s right to know.

People want answers to questions to help them understand the context and complexities of the war against terrorism, and the threat of terrorism.

They rely on journalists for the more answers. But we’re finding it harder to get to the truth because the government uses information as a weapon to influence media coverage to suit its political and strategic interests.

It is difficult for journalists to track changes in policy, investigate actions of the government and provide information to citizens, because new laws and policies prevent them.

The government has thrown a shroud of secrecy over all its workings—taking important decisions in private, denying people the right to know in the name of security. It is extremely difficult for journalists to monitor who is deciding what, where and when.

Blocked

Some journalists, of course, are happy to churn out the government line. But there are others who are desperate to find out the truth. They find their way blocked at every turn, whether it’s denial of access to material, or briefing against them.

Journalists are not agents of the police, or of the state, and we never will be. The NUJ will fight any move to force our members to hand over any of their work, whether it’s film footage, notebooks or revealing our sources.

The NUJ is also concerned about the new terror laws, especially the offence of encouraging terrorism.

Not only would this violate article ten of the European Convention on Human Rights, but where would it lead journalists trying to examine why terrorists commit these acts?

When asked by a reporter whether the invasion of Iraq might have been a contributory factor in the London bombings, the foreign secretary Jack Straw replied, “There can be no excuse for terrorism.”

No-one said anything about excuses. I’ve never heard anyone try to justify the bombings. Many have tried to explain them.

For journalists, this new legislation is full of dangers and pitfalls. Reporting, by its very nature, requires getting close to groups involved in political struggles in order to obtain and verify information. But dealing with any group that has been proscribed now leads journalists into potential trouble with the authorities.

The most worrying aspect of this legislation is that the law stands to criminalise journalists, not for what we say, but on how others may interpret it.

For example, will an interview with the family of a suicide bomber be a legitimate piece of journalism, trying to get inside the mind of someone who can commit such atrocities, or could it be encouraging terrorism?

The further dangers are the “chilling effect”, which means journalists may self-censor themselves, deciding not to cover an issue for fear of prosecution. Where does this leave freedom of expression?

We have to ask, who do we serve? Do we serve our bosses and write what they want us to write, or what we think they want us to write? Do we serve the government and write what it wants us to write? Or do we serve the people and write the truth?

Without journalists to ask questions and to scrutinise them, the government can operate without justifying its actions.

These actions have so far led to the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians, more than 100 British servicemen, the demonisation of black people and Muslims in their own homes and the keeping in ignorance of the citizens of this country.

NUJ members are working tirelessly to report the truth and to hold power to account, to make sure the reality of the Iraq war never fades from people’s minds. From the lies that led us to war to the profiteering that continues throughout the war to the attempts to airbrush the dead, the homeless, the injured and disabled from history.

The NUJ has been opposed to this illegal and immoral war from the start. And we’ll continue to be opposed to it until the troops come home.


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Features
Sat 18 Mar 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1992
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