The shining jewel in the crown of democracy
By Tim Knight
So swiftly that not even the most prescient of us heard the distant thunder of their hooves, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have galloped into our lives. Their names are Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un and Bashar al-Assad.
Together this megalomaniacal foursome — just like the Horsemen in the Book of Revelations — threaten the world with Death, Famine, War and Conquest.
Each is doing his very best to destroy democracy and replace it with some form of fascism.
And only free journalism — one of humankind’s great liberal, humanistic creations — stands in their way.
(In his own racist, sociopathic, kleptocratic manner, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, is doing his best to play like the big boys.)
It’s imperative that the world’s journalists fight back against these Four Horsemen. And remind the world and each other what journalists do and what we stand for.
Before it’s too late.
So please forgive me if I preach.
Free journalism is the absolutely essential cornerstone of our all democracies.
Free journalism is a public trust. It is the watchdog of the public interest. It is the crucial, shining jewel in the crown of democracy.
Without free journalism, no freedoms are guaranteed. No freedoms can be protected.
But the freedom to write, to speak, to report on events of the day, is not absolute and can never be absolute.
For the parents of freedom are responsibility and accountability.
And it is at the peril of our immortal souls that we journalists betray that responsibility and accountability. That we do anything but act as the servants, the surrogates, of the people.
As honourably, as honestly and as fairly as is humanly possible.
• It is the responsibility of the journalist to be uncomfortable. To endlessly question the status quo, the way things are. To challenge accepted verities. To seek the truth.
• It is the place of the journalist to be outside looking in, always questioning the health, actions and values of society.
• It is the right of the journalist to be sceptical. But not cynical.
• It is the obligation of the journalist to be disinterested. But not uninterested.
• It is the privilege of the journalist to be the servant and surrogate of the people. All the people.
• It is the duty of the journalist to cherish and feed the fragile flower of democracy.
It is demanded of journalists that we put the people’s interests before either our own or those of the powerful.
That’s because our first loyalty is not to our employer. Nor to any union. Or nation. Or god. Or cause.
Our first and only loyalty is to the people — and to the people’s right to know.
Journalistic freedom is not important in that it keeps journalists free. It is vital in that it keeps the people free.
We represent — and must ultimately answer to — the people. And only the people.
Journalism is either free or not free. It can’t — within the limits of the law — be three quarters free. Or two thirds free.
But there are legions of the powerful out there eager and willing to lessen journalistic freedom.
They understand that information is power.
Politicians — by the very nature of the job — put party, money and power before truth, openness and the people’s right to know. It’s called pragmatism. Also known as “living in the real world.”
But political pragmatism is the enemy of freedom even though politicians love the word freedom itself and use it a lot — particularly when trying to limit it.
In the dark midnight of their souls, all politicians yearn to lessen journalistic freedom. They would be a lot more comfortable if journalists had less freedom. If journalists were prevented from keeping a too-critical eye on them.
If journalists were told to mind their own goddamn business.
But the nature, the health, the well-being of society is the journalist’s business.
For we are in the business of social justice.
The test of free journalism is not whether journalists are free to broadcast and write things people — especially the powerful — agree with.
The test of free journalism is whether journalists are free to broadcast and write things people — especially the powerful — disagree with.
The free, honest, open, fair dissemination of information through free journalism is the only trustworthy guide to where society is and where it’s going.
And that free dissemination of information is both the business of journalism and the true currency of democracy.
The Free Marketplace of Ideas holds that journalists seek out and report ideas, beliefs, theories and opinions bubbling away in society and expose them to the harsh light of public opinion.
The people then freely and openly discuss them.
If the people find the ideas to be good and worthwhile, the Marketplace accepts those ideas and they live, grow and flourish.
If the people find the ideas to be bad and not worthwhile, the Marketplace rejects them and they wither and die.
The vital thing is that the people do the judging, make the decisions. Not the government. Not the courts. Not the police. Not the army. Not the priests.
It’s the genius of democracy.
It’s a jewel beyond price.
The Free Marketplace of Ideas has other roles.
By ancient right it directs and authorises journalists to be watchdogs of the powerful.
It provides a forum within which journalists report to the people on what the powerful — those who run our societies — are doing and saying. And how those words and actions affect everyone else.
• It keeps the powerful aware of what the people are doing and saying. It’s the only reliable link between those without power and those with power.
• It’s a safety valve for society. When the pressures become too strong, when the tribe is threatened by dissent, it provides an outlet for frustration and anger, thus lessening the pressures and the dangers.
• It gives the powerful a chance to act, to respond, to take action to handle and lessen the pressures before they explode.
Only the free finding and reporting of the truth — from all points of view — can protect our democracies from fascism.
Only trained, free, dedicated, knowledgeable journalists — coming from and reporting to all the people, constantly questioning the actions and motives of the powerful — can ensure the survival of our democracies.
Consider the alternatives (the modern Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for instance) and vomit.
If not us, who?
As St. John is reported to have said in the New Testament: The Truth Shall Make You Free.
Tim Knight is an Emmy-winning journalist and filmmaker who’s worked for three South African newspapers, ABC, NBC and PBS out of New York and for ten years was lead trainer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s TV journalists. This article is adapted from his book Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition.