In the north-east corner of St Bride’s in London’s Fleet Street – the “journalists’ church” and their spiritual home – stands the Journalists’ Altar, sometimes still called the Hostage Altar, since vigils were held there for John McCarthy and his companions when they were hostages in Beirut in the 1980s.
The altar is strewn with small perspex tombstones, containing the names and pictures of journalists who have died in the course of their work, while bringing the horrors of the world to those of us who sit safely at home. Here is Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times and broadcast reporter killed (deliberately?) while covering the siege of Homs in Syria in 2012. There is Anna Politkovskaya, fearless critic of Putin’s policy in Chechnya, murdered in Moscow in 2005. Or Alisher Saipov, exposer of atrocities in Uzbekistan, also silenced by being shot dead in 2007.
To the grim list is now added Jamal Khashoggi, Washington Post columnist and critic of Saudi and wider Arabic repression, who entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul early this month and apparently never left it alive.
It’s impossible for anyone with or without even modest journalistic experience to sit in front of that altar and fail to wonder if journalism is worth dying for. And the answer usually comes: This is a heroic enterprise, to expose the inhumanity of the powerful, to shine a light on the darkness in the world so that we see can what is happening in it, to tell truths that people will kill to conceal. And, yes, there is a form of martyrdom here – to lay down a life to inform one’s friends.
State-sponsored or gangster violence and liquidation is the most extreme end of the business of silencing the servants of a free press. It happens in Russia or Saudi Arabia (or in its diplomatic properties abroad), but we allow ourselves the smugness of assuming that it couldn’t happen in the West, with our commitments to free speech and comforts such as the American First Amendment.
In the strange, “populist” politics into which we’re moving, that may no longer be a given. Tony Schwartz, atoning for his ghosting of Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, told BBC Radio 4 this week that he has no doubt that, if he thought he could get away with it, the US president would have his most vocal critics, Schwartz included, put to death, such is the alleged mental instability of the western world’s most powerful leader.
These are grandiose claims in a febrile political climate. But they raise a question – beyond whether journalism is worth dying for – about more prosaic practices of journalism. Specifically, whether there is something essentially self-sacrificial about being a journalist, a requirement to bear witness to truth whatever the personal cost to us.
The silencing of journalists through state-sponsored murder is easy to condemn. Less visibly wicked are the more insidious means through which the state and powerful individuals silence a supposedly free press.
The journalistic (and human) instinct to survive and prosper is a powerful one. It creates a supine press in repressive societies. Khashoggi’s last and, we assume, posthumous column in the Washington Post, records that only Tunisia in the Arab world is classified as “free” in the 2018 Freedom in the World report published by the venerable democracy think tank Freedom House in the US. Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait are recorded as “partly free”. The rest of the Arab world is “not free”.
The excited hope of a new democratic dawn across the middle-east in the Arab Spring of 2011, enabled partly by popular social media, has not been delivered. It’s why Arabic media have very largely swallowed the Saudi line – laughable if the narrative was not so grotesque – that Khashoggi’s death was an “accident”, the consequence of a bungled interrogation that would make Inspector Clouseau look like a mastermind.
But, again, before the West points a patronising finger at Arab newspapers, it’s as well to dwell on our own capacities for self-silencing. Much of the means for our own voluntary self-censorship are enshrined in UK law. Witness the long list of redactions that MPs were allowed on information regarding their expenses, exposed by the Daily Telegraph in 2009. Or the ways in which our libel laws still favour the wealthy, who can afford the legal fees.
Then let’s look at British journalists’ professional lifestyle choices. The old “lobby” system in parliamentary reporting is now swept aside, but political journalists still depend on the gracious patronage of politicians for their information. Business journalism has long depended on access in exchange for favourable coverage, supported by a lucrative PR industry, particularly in financial services.
Self-censored, ingratiating journalism – the kind that, in advance of the story breaking, misses that Robert Maxwell is a crook or that Grenfell Towers is improperly built – is a consequence of the fear, laziness or greed of the journalists that produce it. This situation is made much, much worse by a hobbled economy for journalism, which decimates resources so that the light of inquiry is extinguished in the darkness of public deceit.
Journalists may not often be murdered in order to silence them, at least in the West. But politics, the economy and indolence may do that silencing job anyway.
We don’t all have to be as brave as Khashoggi, Politkovskaya or Colvin. But journalists dishonour their memories at the altar of journalism if they allow themselves to be silenced or, worse, silence themselves, just because that’s how the world works.
George Pitcher advises Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, on ethics and the future of journalism and is a Visiting Fellow at LSE. He formerly held senior editorial positions at The Observer and the Daily Telegraph. @GeorgePitcher
Views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Dow Jones or the LSE.