I feel rather unworthy to be on stage tonight – to be honoured on the same night as four extraordinary journalists who have risked literally everything – their freedom, their health and even their lives – in the cause of journalism.
Tonight is inspiring because it forces us to stop and remember what journalism can do. It asks us to remember colleagues all round the world who are so brave in the pursuit of truth. And to recognize how, increasingly, bravery is required: what a dangerous thing it often is now to be a journalist.
Targeting journalists looks like a trend. The people harassing and killing journalists include governments, military officials, criminal groups and paramilitary organizations. Where journalists are not being physically intimidated they are increasingly put under the sort of surveillance which will make reporting and the protection of sources all but impossible. In the UK we are facing a bill to collect and store records of texts, emails and phone calls for the entire population, accessible by a large number of government agencies and departments.
So I feel very humble to be up here tonight receiving an award in the memory of Burton Benjamin.
It’s never easy to know what news of the British media crosses the pond and registers over here. But I suspect you may have heard of at least four things that have happened in the UK in the past year or so.
There was Wikileaks; there was phone hacking; there was the Leveson Inquiry to investigate phone hacking. And then there has been the recent crisis at the BBC.
The Guardian was involved in all four. All involved deep debates about the ethics, the legality, the craft and the purpose of journalism.
Especially the “purpose”.
Wikileaks posed some very big ethical questions.
Phone hacking was the work of a brilliant reporter, Nick Davies, who refused to let go of a story, no matter that he was taking on some extremely powerful people. One of the biggest news organisations in the world – and its friends in politics, the police, in Downing Street, and in the rest of Fleet Street.
It was a story of criminality, collusion, intrusion and menace in the pursuit of political and commercial aims. At one point I reached out to the New York Times – one of their reporters, Jo Becker, is in the room tonight – because very few people in Britain – not parliament, not the police, not the regulator, not other journalists – wanted to know. So it was a story about dominance and fear.
That, as the truth was dragged out of News International, led to the Leveson Inquiry, due to report within the next few weeks. And that heard much evidence to shame journalists: how media organizations could so forget the good that journalism can do – the sort of things we honour tonight – and instead resorted to bribery, surveillance, phone-hacking and other forms of criminal intrusion, some of it outsourced, to pursue stories that had little, if any public interest.
Some of the activities looked less like journalism, more like the things Eastern European intelligence agencies got up to.
And then there is the BBC – one of the most respected and trusted media organizations in the world – in turmoil. Barely two weeks ago, the Guardian revealed that a BBC story suggesting that a prominent Conservative political figure was a paedophile simply could not have been true. Our story – a piece of patient examination of the evidence
– led to the resignation of the Director General 48 hours later.
Trust in journalism has to be earned all the time. Burton Benjamin understood that.
In the same period, over the past year or so, I have had to fly to Libya to extricate a reporter from jail; had a correspondent harassed by the FSB (the old KGB) and expelled from Russia; and had a reporter threatened with criminal prosecution and her source arrested for writing about phone-hacking.
At the heart of all these things the Guardian has done have been resourceful, brilliant reporters, some of them doing rather brave things like tonight’s other awardees. And – crucially – there has been an institution – the Guardian and its owners, the Scott Trust – behind them. When people take on our reporters – whether they sue them, imprison them, prosecute them, intimidate them, expel them – they take on a newspaper, including the independent trust which exists for no other purpose than supporting journalism.
They take on the institutional muscle that comes from having lawyers; from resourceful colleagues; from networks of contacts and supporters; from having readers throughout the world, including nearly 12 million in America.
Increasingly, they take on the constitutional and legal protections of countries which, mercifully, still do have strong laws and enshrined free speech.
With Wikileaks, I also rang Bill Keller at the New York Times because I wanted to harness first amendment protections to the work we were doing. It was not clear to me that the British laws would give the Guardian the defences it needed.
Whatever people’s opinions of Wikileaks, it was an illustration of how people living in countries like China – like Brazil, like Liberia, like Kyrgyzstan – can, in a networked world, use the kind of solid protections you enjoy here in America to publish truths that would be forbidden in their own countries.
No-one here tonight needs reminding how fragile the economic basis for the institutions of the press is.
But tonight is a reminder of why those institutions matter and always will.
Thank you to the CPJ for this recognition in the memory of Burton Benjamin. And thank you for all the work you do to highlight these issues and to defend journalists in trouble.