Mark Austin address at St Bride's

ITV News at Ten presenter Mark Austin’s address made at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, on Wednesday 9th November 2011, to commemorate the journalists, camera operators and support staff that have lost their lives to bring news to the public:

“A few weeks ago I travelled with a cameraman to Mogadishu in Somalia – possibly one of the most dangerous capital cities in the world right now. We knew that as Westerners we ran a considerable risk of kidnap or worse. We knew also that as Western journalists we were particularly juicy targets for the Islamist militants or the gangs linked to them. We were determined to go to see for ourselves what was going on there, to report on the dreadful famine made so much worse by the conflict that still rages on the edge of the capital.

But the innate cowardice that has been my protection in many a war zone through the years meant I would only make the trip if some sort of satisfactory security could be provided. So it was that we put ourselves in the custody of a local warlord called Bashir who, for a heavy price, provided 36 tough, battle hardened and crucially, heavily armed, young men to watch our backs every step of the way. That they did so, was, of course, a huge reassurance. That it was necessary is an indication of just how dangerous covering the news has become for journalists. And that we had to resort to such measures is, for me, a cause of considerable sadness, and in a sense, guilt.

Sadness, because of what it says about what has happened to our trade. Where once the neutrality and independence of the media was widely recognised and respected, now it’s clear journalists are being specifically targeted or sought out by those who fear the truth emerging. It’s no longer enough to blame the messenger, it seems. Silencing the messenger is all too often the name of the game now. And guilt because of the glaring inequality that now exists in journalism. I can insist on that security in Somalia, I am insured and have the backup of a large organisation with considerable resources and which makes safety a priority. But by and large the journalists we should be thinking about and honouring tonight have no such protection . They are the local reporters and photographers and freelancers in places like Somalia, who put their lives on the line every single day.

I speak of reporters like Nur Mohammed Abkey, a veteran journalist for Radio Mogadishu, whose body was found in an alleyway with gunshot wounds and evidence of torture. He was killed, say colleagues, because of his affiliation to the government–run station. He didn’t have protection. Or Nasteh Dahir Farrah, a freelance and vice-president of the National Union of Somali Journalists. Recently married, he was shot dead as he was walking home from an internet café. He didn’t have protection either. A colleague said simply: “Someone didn’t like his reporting”. Someone didn’t like his reporting. Just think about that. Someone didn’t like what a journalist had written. So what did they do? They didn’t try to put their side of the story. They didn’t attempt to persuade him of the validity of their arguments or their political creed. No, they just shot him dead in an alley.

There are many journalists like Nur Mohammed Abkey and Nasteh Darrir Fareh in countries all over the world. In places like Mexico, Colombia, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan journalists are regularly murdered because of what they’ve written or said .Or because of a story they were investigating. These are reporters, not dropping in for a few days to temporarily cover a story, but rather they’re journalists who are working and living with the constant threat of intimidation, violence and murder. Journalists who are getting uncomfortably close to the truth. Despite the dangers they’ve made a simple decision. They’ve decided it is their job to try to tell the truth about what is happening in their country.

These journalists know full well the risks of challenging the government or the militias. But they believe they MUST challenge, they MUST hold to account because they believe it is the right thing to do. They also know if they don’t, the chances are, no-one else will. We tend to think that most journalists who are killed are caught in the cross fire, or just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some are, it is true, and their deaths are no less regrettable for that. But the horrific truth is that more than 70% of the journalists killed in the last two decades were murdered in cold blood. And here is the scandalous statistic. In 80% of those cases — yes 80% — the killers are not brought to justice. So what we have are police and security forces who do not take seriously the murders of journalists or, worse, who are complicit in those murders. It is nothing less than state sanctioned killing and it is an outrage.

We journalists …all of us ….share a belief that news and the spread of information is the foundation of democracy. We share a belief that good journalism should call bad government to account. We share a belief that good journalism is about exposing abuse of power and corruption and malpractice and not letting it go unmonitored and unchecked, unknown, unpublicised and untold. We share all those beliefs about our trade. But here’s the thing… Increasingly such journalism and such beliefs come at a high price and let’s be honest very few of us are prepared to put our lives on the line for it. It is why tonight we should honour those who do. But honouring them is not enough . more must be done to protect them. When journalists are deliberately targeted and killed it is a crime. When it happens during a conflict it is a war crime. It is as simple as that and governments and regimes around the world need to recognise it. It is difficult to be optimistic. If bad people in bad regimes see journalists can be killed with impunity, what hope is there?

And I see other reasons to worry. Rigorous cost cutting within the media means there are fewer overseas-based correspondents who build up real experience on their patch. Instead there is an increasing tendency to use so-called parachute correspondents less able to assess dangerous situations in conflict affected areas. They do not have the same connections or contacts or knowledge and will be more inclined to make errors of judgement. These are serious issues. And then in television in particular there is a real question about technology and the impact it can have on the way journalists work. There is much talk of the benefits of technology that allows us to broadcast live from virtually anywhere in the world at virtually anytime. In the world of 24/7 breaking news it is all about being live, as it happens, at the scene, up to the minute. Exciting, breathless and edgy reporting from the frontline as the bullets and the rocket propelled grenades fly. Get that sound. Get that picture. Get it all. Because if we don’t the opposition will.

But wait, stop a moment, let’s pause and think. Just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should. Covering any conflict is dangerous, but covering conflicts and uprisings like we’ve witnessed recently can be particularly difficult with no clear frontlines and certainly no rules. The bravery of many journalists goes without saying but it is perhaps important that the expectations placed upon them, or which they place upon themselves, do not expose them to an unnecessary level of danger.

In conclusion, it seems to me that both journalism and journalists are under assault like seldom before. A free media relies to a great extent on journalists being allowed to work without fear of murderous retribution. It is our duty to protect both the trade and those who ply it. To do otherwise is tantamount to saying that those we honour this evening – those who died in pursuit of the truth – did so in vain.”

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