We end the week with two very different stories of journalists on trial, from two very different jurisdictions. Today in London the former editor of the News Of The World, and ex-communications director for the British prime minister, Andy Coulson, will be sentenced for conspiracy to hack phones in pursuit of news stories. A lengthy prison term is expected.
In Egypt, meanwhile, the parents of Al Jazeera correspondent Peter Greste have visited him in prison in the wake of his seven year sentence for alleged subversion of the Egyptian state. Their pain and heartache is palpable, and everyone in Australia will empathise with their predicament.
One should never be too hasty to cast judgment on the legal systems of other countries, but there has been widespread, high level international condemnation of the Egyptian handling of the Greste affair, and there can hardly be anyone outside that chaotic country who doubts his innocence. Coulson’s conviction, likewise, has been received in the UK – from where I’ve just returned – as a just verdict on a shameful episode in British journalism, and in the history of parent company News Corp. In that case, no one doubts his guilt.
In these two trials we have seen the best and worst that journalism can be. For decades News Corp’s red top UK tabloids have been a toxic, if immensely powerful force in the land, wielding their vast readerships as weapons against anyone whom Rupert or his henchmen – and women – saw fit. During the trial Rebekkah Brooks played a blinder as the little girl playing hard in a man’s world, but acquittal on all charges notwithstanding, she rose to the top of the company as a key lieutenant of the Murdochs.
From senior politicians to murdered schoolgirls, anyone was fair game for a news organisation which, in its tabloid division at least, had lost all moral direction. Everyone feared The Sun and NOTW; everyone kowtowed, understanding that to do otherwise was to risk exposure before the nation for sins real or invented.
What a monstrous apparatus, masquerading as a fourth estate! In my book about Journalists In Film I wrote about Rag Tale (Mary McGuckian, 2004), a poorly received and rarely seen satire of the British tabloids, very loosely based on News International. Then, it was reviewed by journalists as ludicrously exaggerated. Now, it plays as documentary. See it if you can.
But if Coulson and his cohorts present us with the worst that journalism can be in a modern democracy, Peter Greste and the foreign correspondents who risk life and liberty to bear witness to harrowing events in those parts of the world most of us would never venture represent the very best. Heroes to the phone-hacking villains, indeed.
Nowhere is the courage of the journalist displayed more clearly than in the work of the foreign correspondent. In the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 more journalists were killed than allied troops – including Al Jazeera and Reuters journalists bombed by US aircraft, lest we forget.
In Syria, Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin, already scarred from covering conflicts in other parts of the world, was killed while trying to maintain a free media presence in that troubled country (and here we should acknowledge that the behaviour of a man like Coulson is not typical of journalists elsewhere in the News Corp empire).
There is something very humbling about the sacrifices made by journalists such as Colvin and Greste, and despite the grizzly reports of News’ activities in the UK, they remind us what it means to speak of a fourth estate, and why we must never take it for granted. Peter Greste, we salute you, and look forward to a speedy and positive resolution of your case.